Friday, February 29, 2008

About Budgets

In 2003, during my first six months after having just been elected to the County Council, the County was facing a budget shortfall not unlike what we are facing this year. I was still learning about all of the departments, and programs that the County administered for its residents and so it was difficult to get a good handle on the magnitude of the problem. Then County Executive, Doug Duncan, submitted his budget as required in March, and the Council went through all of the budget hearings and committee worksessions. As a new councilmember, I was looking for the "rules" and the "right numbers" (revenue projections and actual expenditures) that would clearly identify the problem as well as some of the potential solutions. Well, things came to a head as the "numbers" continued to show a gap that had to be closed in order for the Council to pass a balanced budget.

The Saturday before the budget needed to be passed, everyone was scrambling and I was attending a friend's wedding and talking on the phone in the vestibule of the church with then Council President, Mike Subin, and the leaders of unions as they discussed a four month delay in their employee's COLAs (cost of living increases). This, in addition to a series of program reductions and tax increases, helped bring everything together and a budget was passed that next week. About a month later, the County received the next income tax distribution from the State, which was higher than anticipated, and it turned out that the "right numbers" weren't that right at all -- and a lot of the issues that we were scrambling to fix in the closing minutes of the budget didn't necessarily need to be as contentious as they were.

I write this because there has been a lot of discussion about the budget difficulties that we will face this year. Make no mistake about it -- this will be a difficult budget year. I wanted to share my reflections from 2003 because it very clearly pointed out to me that there are many variables that need to be taken into account and that a search for the "right numbers" may not be as successful as some would hope. There are no "rules" that exist to be followed except broad guidance in the County Charter, and some policy guidelines that have evolved over time. Addressing this year's budget issues will require everyone (taxpayers, employees, stakeholders, elected officials, and many others) talking to each other and working together to get to a sustainable budget outcome. The quest for perfect information is elusive. The best we will ever be able to achieve is a snapshot in time. If we all recognize that we are working together and sharing whatever information is available to achieve the best possible outcome, then I have no doubt we will be successful on behalf of our residents

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Off To The Races

Sorry to everyone for the recent hiatus. As you can probably imagine, the past few weeks have been pretty hectic for the Council, and it’s taken a bit of time to address a number of important issues. As you all surely know by now, Councilmember Marilyn Praisner passed away on February 1st and her Council colleagues (both Councilmembers and staff) have been struggling to deal with this tragic event. My colleagues and I have all made many public statements, and the Council held a tribute with her family and former Councilmembers last week. There’s not much more I can add here that would be new or more fitting, apart to tell you that everyone appreciates the kind words we’re hearing from those who knew or appreciated Marilyn, and everyone is still working to get through a difficult, sad time.

Change is difficult for most people and the Council is certainly no exception—and when you add the spice of politics to the mix, things can become interesting fast. While Councilmembers are coping with the loss of a colleague—and running the gamut of emotions that come with such a loss—there are still a number of administrative things that have to happen—and under county charter, have to happen quickly.

First, we had to figure out how to conduct a special election. That sounds fairly straightforward, and county law lays out some timelines on when such elections are permitted to occur. The problem is, we don’t usually have special elections, and things become even more difficult when one realizes that we as a county don’t actually own or control our voting machines—the State of Maryland does. Further, since we’re already in an election year, we can't really take advantage of other previously scheduled elections! Not only can we not schedule a special election the same day as a previously-scheduled election, but we have to give those same elections a fairly wide berth—as many as 30 days on either side of a previously-scheduled election.

That’s already a fairly inflexible calendar to work with. Now add to it the competing voices of those pushing for an election as quickly as possible—to fill the seat sooner rather than later—and those who would like to go slowly, to give candidates and voters more time to get to know each other. Then there’s the Council’s schedule—much of it defined by law—that requires us to continue working on county budgets and planning board appointments, with little regard to the timing of elections. As is often the case, logistics tend to prevail, and in spite of many of the issues I just identified, we usually end up with a solution that still works pretty well.

In this case, the special primary election will be held Tuesday, April 15, and the special general election will occur a month later, on Tuesday, May 13. More information can be found on the Council’s main page, or by clicking here.