Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Investing in our Most Valuable Resource

What are we teaching our kids? Two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences commissioned a blue ribbon task force chaired by the CEO and Chair of Lockheed Martin (and Montgomery County resident), Norm Augustine, to examine the state of the competitiveness of our nation’s workforce.

The findings of this panel are quite distressing: As the rest of the world is making changes to their education policies and curricula to increase their focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (generally known as STEM), the United States is producing fewer college graduates in these fields than before.

In fact, the number of college graduates we have in our nation is quite startling. Even though a person with a bachelor’s degree makes an average of $51,206 while a person with only a high school diploma makes just $27,915, only a quarter of nation’s population -- that’s right, 25% -- have a college degree.

So while Mr. Augustine and the National Academy of Sciences have raised the broader issues of competitiveness at the national level, it is critically important to remember that most of the changes that need to take place will have to happen at the local level.

We are beginning to work on this in Montgomery County. Three weeks ago, I introduced a bill, cosponsored by two of my colleagues, Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal, that would establish a scholarship program for students attending Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove who choose to get a degree in an area that will allow them to be employed in a key job area in our county, such as math and science teacher, health professions like nursing, engineering, and child care. In exchange for the scholarship the recipient would have to agree to work in Montgomery County for a period of four years. This provided an opportunity for our County to invest in our most precious commodity, our people, and then allow our County to see a return on our investment.

Last week, with the support of Councilmembers Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, I introduced the second installment of legislation that will improve our local competitiveness. The bill would do three things:

1) provide matching grants for our teachers to attend summer institutes in science, math and technology in order to update their skills and state of the art knowledge;

2) provide grants to local institutions of higher learning to offer a 2 year, part-time master’s degree program that focuses on science and math, and

3) provide incentives to instructors who teach advanced courses (Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate) and who have students successfully complete these courses.

These bills are just a few small things that we must begin to do in order to ensure that our children have the skills to be successful as they become adults which in turn will ensure that our nation remains competitive in a global marketplace.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Doing The Math

Boy is it ugly out there! Everyone is having budget issues and your county is no different.

To meet the needs of our approximately 965,000 residents, our county budget is about $4.2 billion. That comes out to about $4,350 per resident. It's getting hard to maintain the current level of services we're providing because a sagging economy means we're having problems generating as much revenue as we originally anticipated. Why, you may ask? Didn't the county know this would be a tough year?

Actually, we did know -- but until we actually see some of the revenues come in, we don’t really know exactly how big a problem we’re facing. Interestingly, most of our revenue sources are okay; the real problem is in the income tax.

In Montgomery County, a lot of our income tax revenue comes from people paying capital gains taxes, which is usually generated from investment income. Obviously, there aren’t many people making investments right now -- so our current calculations show we’re already off about $590 million from what we were originally anticipating.

We're running low on funding, and we've already agreed to not increase taxes during this difficult fiscal time. So, what do we do?

Well, our schools are getting some funds from the federal stimulus package. That'll help a bit. Additionly, the County Council will have to work with our employee organizations (unions) to re-negotiate the current contracts to eliminate cost of living allowances (COLAs), just as the school system had already done with its employee organizations. That'll save us about $125 million.

After that, we'll have to re-focus our county’s efforts, clarify our priorities and make reductions –- not necessarily fun, but necessary. Fortunately, our residents have already helped us by responding to a county-wide survey that was conducted last year. In that survey, you told as that your three most important areas of focus for the county are public safety, education, and a basic safety net of social services. Given this feedback, in my mind we have a good place to start.

Finally, in year’s past, it has been assumed by many organizations and individuals that once the County Executive’s budget proposal is submitted to the County Council, it provides a stone-carved blueprint, and that there will be few big changes in what is ultimately approved. That's not the case.

This year, the County Executive has made many assumptions in his budget proposal that may still require us to make additional reductions to close the deficit. So, everyone should be aware that we have a long way to go -- and we'd also love to have any feedback that you would like to provide during this process.

The budget public hearings are on April 14, 15 and 16 -- and if you want to sign up to testify, call 240-777-7931, or feel free to e-mail any thoughts that you may have.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Time, It's Personal...

I was pleased last week that we were able to open a brand new fire station – for the first time in nearly thirty years -- serving a new area in our County.

When the County opened Station 29 in downtown Germantown in 1981, it served a community of only about 20,000 people. Germantown now has about 86,000 residents -- and until last week, it still had just one fire station. With the opening of Station 22, we incorporated the history of the first Station 22 (which was on Bradley Blvd. before it closed in 1978) with the newness of our community, to increase the availability of critical public safety assets for that community.

This one is actually personal for me. While my home is only two miles from town center in Germantown, there are no hydrants in my neighborhood. And as I witnessed, there can be devastating consequences when the fire and rescue service does not have the right tools to do its job.

In February 2002, my neighbor’s home caught fire, and I stood with them on my front yard and watched their home burn to the ground. Now, there were lots of reasons that this happened on this particular day, but one of the most significant was lack of access to appropriate public safety resources. This should never be the case in our county.

Unfortunately, the story gets worse. Station 22 was initially approved by the County Council in 1999 and could have been in position to address community needs much sooner. But it wasn't -- and it wasn’t because of a lack of resources. We had the money, but we didn't have an efficient and effective process in place to get it spent and begin work. So I'm pleased that we've been able to get the logjam removed. In fact, we're now on track to have a second new station open next year in East Germantown, and in coming years, we're converting the interim station that we located in Clarksburg into a full station. We're also moving ahead with a critically needed new police station in Gaithersburg.

Public safety assets aren’t as high profile as some other projects, but I can’t think of anything that is more important for our residents. I’m glad we’re making some progress.