The Council Connection — the County’s overall fiscal picture
June 11, 2018
Council President’s Message
The Council has passed the budgets for the upcoming fiscal year (July 2018 to July 2019). In recent newsletters we have reviewed the MCPS and public safety budgets. This week, however, we step back to review the overall fiscal picture.
This was a restrained budget year as the Council grappled with revenues that were lower than anticipated and only allowed for an increase in expenditures in a few highest priority areas.
Although the local economy continues to perform well with low unemployment, strong job growth, and rising incomes, tax revenues have remained below expectations. Tax revenues for this fiscal year are down $106.1 million from the budget we approved last summer. The revenue shortfall stems in large part from a significant decline in revenue from capital gains, but other revenues were softer than expected, too. Recognizing the need to get ahead of the problem, the Council approved over $125 million in reductions to the FY18 budget mid-year.
While revenues are below expectations, they did allow for a modest increase in FY19, which through the budget process was almost entirely devoted to MCPS.
The Council did not raise taxes in this year’s budget. In fact, the weighted average real property tax rate fell by 1.98 cents this year, and by a combined 4.50 cents over the past two years.
The property tax will generate approximately $1.8 billion in revenue, about a third of total revenue. The next largest revenue source is the income tax at an estimated at $1.6 billion. The income tax rate remains unchanged. Read more about the Council’s decisions on the property tax here (pdf). More information on the other revenue sources can be found here (pdf).
What does this all mean for the average household? Adjusted for inflation, the County share of taxes relative to personal income has remained virtually unchanged for the last five years.
The operating budget for the upcoming year totals $5.6 billion, a 2% increase from the previous year. There are real differences though by agency. MCPS expenditures will rise by about 3%, Montgomery College will rise about 1%, and Montgomery County government (provider of public safety, libraries, HHS and other services) will rise at 0.2%.
I always find that the rate of increase overall is the most useful number to focus on when trying to understand the overall budget picture. This year’s increase, 2% overall, is very modest. Consider that in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the County budget increased by over 10% annually each year.
You can find a rough breakdown of how expenditures are programmed in the chart below.
The chart above demonstrates our priorities: MCPS funding is about half of all County spending with the next largest program being public safety. Debt service, though, is not far behind, which is why we are reducing our borrowing levels in our capital budget.
This Council strengthened its commitment to fiscal discipline in this budget, by setting aside additional funds for our reserve. By adding enough new funding in this budget to have a fund equal to 9.4% of our revenues, the County stays on track to meet its 10% goal by 2020. After making adjustments to our retiree health fund (OPEB) for the FY18 revenue shortfall, we also fully funded our FY19 commitment to OPEB.
Sufficient monies in reserves are critical for us to weather downturns in our revenues, which we have experienced regularly over the years — including this past year.
Healthy reserve funding helps the County maintain our coveted AAA Bond Rating, the highest possible. The AAA Bond Rating means we get the lowest interest rates, allowing us to build more schools and facilities with our capital funds.
Don’t just take my word for it, here is what the ratings agencies say:
“The County’s budget management demonstrates a strong commitment to bolstering its reserve cushion in preparation for the next downturn,” said Fitch. “Given the County’s conservative management practices and emphasis on increasing reserves, operations are expected to remain strong.” Moody’s noted that “the county’s financial flexibility remains sound,” while S & P indicated that the County’s “financial practices are strong, well embedded, and likely sustainable.”
The Council produced a budget that is restrained and responsible and meets critical goals for fiscal discipline. It does not raise taxes, and ensures the County will continue to provide the superb services that so many of our residents appreciate so much.
Next week we will turn to budgets for transportation and parks. Stay tuned.