Thursday, January 28, 2010

Knapp Proposes Budget Summit

County Council Member Mike Knapp has proposed a "budget summit" for this year's grisly $608 million cut-and-slash fest. Normally, the budget proceeds through a slow and sequential process. The Superintendent of Schools develops his proposal for the Board of Education, which votes on it and forwards it to the council, and the Executive Branch department heads work with the county's Chief Administrative Officer to develop the County Executive's proposal, which also goes to the council. The council then holds hearings, moans in the newspapers, bickers in their offices and plays chicken until the last day or two, whereupon releasing the documents of woe to the cringing outside world. Knapp would instead like to gather the entire council, the school board, the Executive and his department heads, and even the public employee union leaders in one room to work it out all at once. No one would be allowed to leave until a deal is done. Knapp promoted the idea in a Gazette op-ed and issued a press release outlining it that we reprint below.

County Councilmember Mike Knapp Proposes ‘Budget Summit’ to Resolve Montgomery’s Fiscal Year 2011 Shortfall

Key Decision-Makers Should Be Assembled for ‘As Long As It Takes to Complete a County Budget We Can All Agree On’

ROCKVILLE, Md., January 28, 2010—Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp, chair of the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee, has asked his fellow Councilmembers and County Executive Isiah Leggett to consider holding a “budget summit” to help solve the County’s budget shortfall for Fiscal Year 2011, beginning on July 1.

Councilmember Knapp said the key budget decision-makers in the County should gather and not leave for “as long as it takes to complete a County budget we can all agree on.”

The Office of Management and Budget is projecting that the County must close a budget shortfall of approximately $608 million to achieve a balanced budget, required by law. However, Councilmember Knapp said that constantly changing factors have made it difficult, under the current system, to determine how much money will even be available for County government to spend on programs and services.

“As we each begin our work on the FY 2011 budget—struggling with the most significant fiscal challenges that any County Executive or County Council has faced—I think it is important to recognize the limitations of the current budget process,” Councilmember Knapp wrote in a memo to the County’s other elected officials. “Reports from every industry and level of government indicate that the status quo will no longer work and that we must take new approaches to be successful in the future. We have to recognize that while a budget could probably be cobbled together doing the same old thing (which has almost always resulted in more spending than the previous year), it won’t address the broader structural changes that we must address on behalf of our residents.

“I’m proposing instead that we work on the operating budget together, from the beginning, in the same room, working from mutually agreed upon numbers, and then crafting budget alternatives together. In short, I’m proposing a budget summit . . . that lasts as long as it takes to complete a County budget we can all agree on.”

Councilmember Knapp said a successful budget summit would involve all facets of County government; the County Executive, the County Council, the Board of Education, heads of agencies, directors of departments, union representatives and employees.

“Typically, each government element legitimately advocates for the best deal that it can receive and spends most of its time in the budget discourse defending what it has proposed,” wrote Councilmember Knapp. “This year’s crisis demands that everyone first understands the scope of the problem. Reality dictates that there is no ‘best deal’ for anyone out there. All of the choices before us are serious, and we need to select the ‘least bad’ options.”

Saying that, “It is important that no one feel out of place,” Councilmember Knapp proposed that the summit take place at a site away from the County’s offices, perhaps at the Universities at Shady Grove.

The summit would have two major purposes, said Councilmember Knapp. It would “determine and agree upon the specific assumptions that are the basis for the budget, including the amount of revenue and other resources available to fund the operating budget.” He went on to say, “Once we’ve agreed on the magnitude of the problem and those areas that are still not yet known (state aid, for example), we’d work together to craft scenarios that can meet these numbers.”

Councilmember Knapp, who worked in the private biotech industry prior to his election to office, said the collaborative effort could produce solutions that cannot be achieved through traditional budget-process channels. “Our final budget will not be something that is ‘done to’ government departments and agencies, but instead would be ‘done with’ them, with their input. If we all own the process, then we can all own the outcome.”

Councilmember Knapp suggested a scenario that would start with all attendees discussing the overall budget revenue expectations so the group can determine how much of a shortfall must be addressed.

“Once we know the nature of the math problem we’re facing, we can break into smaller groups to work on specific solutions,” he said. “Each group could, for example, develop its own proposal—and each of these proposals would be submitted anonymously back to the full group for consideration.”

Councilmember Knapp said the mechanics of a summit are open to discussion, but he is confident a new approach would produce results.

“I am convinced that a fundamental change in the way we craft our County budget is needed to overcome our current budget crisis,” he said.

# # # #