Monday, January 7, 2008

Kicking Off "The Socks"

I’d like to welcome you to my inaugural posting on “Starting with the Socks.” I know the name appears a bit unusual, but it’s really a simple concept. It comes from the great former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Each year at the first practice of basketball season, he would sit down with his entire team – even if they were all seniors who had played for him before – and would teach them the proper way to put on their socks. His thought was this: it would be very difficult for any of his players to play basketball well, or at all, if something happened to their feet, causing blisters or turned ankles. So, one of the simplest ways to avoid this problem was to ensure that his team knew how to do the simple but often overlooked things well, like putting on their socks. If the simple issues were adequately addressed, then the more complex challenges could be tackled.

In government, business, and our personal lives we tend to forget that if we don’t do the simple things well, it‘s virtually impossible to handle the harder tasks. It is my goal through this blog to focus on the basic things that we in government need to address – and first and foremost is our need to communicate. I hope to share some insights with you about what’s going on in government that may be of interest to you, and I want to listen to the perspectives that you may have to share. We live in a great community and I want to make sure that we’re all working together to continue to make it better. And we can do that by getting the simple things right.

The County Council has been in recess since December 14 and will reconvene on January 15. Most people assume that recess equates to vacation – and sure enough, it does give some of us on the council an opportunity to reconnect with our families and friends. However, it is also a time to focus on items that we may not have time to address throughout the year. For example, this past week three councilmembers were volunteering for Presidential candidates in the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. Three other councilmembers were attending the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) Winter Meeting in an effort to build better relationships with elected officials in our neighboring jurisdictions, and to better understand the issues that will be coming before the General Assembly when it convenes later this week.

One of the biggest issues that has required our attention is a possible budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1, 2008. According to the assumptions in the County’s current fiscal plan, it appears that we could be facing a shortfall of nearly $400 million, or about 10% of this year’s budget. It is important to remember that the fiscal plan is based on a number of assumptions which can change as the year progresses, but we need to be prudent and prepare ourselves.

As a result, the County Executive has recommended certain budget reductions in our current budget in order to help save some money for next year. Councilmembers have been reviewing the County Executive’s recommendations and we have submitted a series of questions clarifying some of what has been proposed. We will then review, refine, modify and ultimately approve a resolution on these proposed reductions when we return on January 15. While it is important to be prudent, we must also be careful about not damaging programs where we have great need or where significant progress is being made – I am particularly concerned about police, fire and rescue, and some of our programs in health and human services.

We must also be mindful of what is happening in the General Assembly when it convenes on January 9. During the special session of the legislature this past Fall, the Governor was directed to reduce State spending by $550million. The Governor will present his proposed budget—with these reductions—to the General Assembly on January 15. We need to work with our legislators to ensure that Montgomery County isn’t further impacted by significant reductions in funding that we receive from the State.

On a more positive note, difficult fiscal times can really force us to make sure that our programs and services are working as efficiently and effectively as possible. Too often we get caught in the trap of saying that a program is successful because we have provided a lot of funding for it, but we forget to check and see if it is meeting the needs of the people it is serving. This gives us a real opportunity to make sure our programs are really working.
Well, this is probably enough to get us started. I hope that you will take the time to share your perspectives with me, and I'll continue to provide a glimpse into what the County Council is up to, and how we can all make Montgomery County better simply by "starting with the socks."

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