Let me start with wishes for a Happy Mother’s Day to all of the women who should be celebrated this Sunday. I hope every mother, grandmother, aunt and godmother is showered with love and attention.
It follows National Nurses Week. Our nurses rarely get enough credit for the countless hours they put in helping the sick. During the COVID-19 health crisis, they often were one of the few people patients saw because of isolation precautions. They were on the front lines of our response when knew very little about how the virus spread and how to protect ourselves—especially before vaccines were created. Many went to work anyway, did their jobs and kept our community safe, putting their lives on the line for others. More lives were saved than lost and we all owe them a special thank you for all that they have done.
The public health emergency for COVID has officially been declared over, but nurses continue their critical role in helping families through difficult times.
Teacher Appreciation Day and Week also was celebrated this week. On Monday, I visited Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park—the school where I taught fourth and fifth grades for 17 years. I truly enjoyed my experience teaching. I got into teaching because I wanted to make a difference in our community. Being in the classroom and representing my school as a union representative gave me that opportunity.
During my visit to Rolling Terrace, I went to my old classroom and saw former co-workers. I also talked to a parent who was a former student of mine. She recognized me and told me that she was dropping off her kids, noticed me talking with teachers and parents and had to say hello. Many of my former students have stayed in the community and I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with them and learn about their lives today.
I want to thank Principal Jessica V. Palladino and her team at Rolling Terrace for welcoming me back and I appreciate all of the students who talked with me.
I want to applaud all of the professionals who devote their time and energy to give our young people the tools they need to be successful in school and in life. They are there for our students—on good days and on the difficult days. Over the last few years, we have had more than our fair share of difficult times. Through all of this, they have been there for our kids, and I do appreciate them. I know you do as well. That is why I was comfortable making a difficult decision to raise the property tax rate to address the needs of our students through my proposed Fiscal Year 2024 operating budget that is under consideration right now by the County Council.
Supporting Schools with a Property Tax Increase is Overdue
I want to give a little history on how the need to propose a 10-cent property tax increase for the Fiscal Year 2024 budget came about.
Since the Recession of 2010, we have failed our school system when it comes to financial support. Back then, the County got permission from the State to rebase its funding commitment to schools and to lower the required payment from the County. Had this not been done, we would have had to increase spending dramatically to account for inflation and increases in student enrollment. This solution saved us from having to gut County services to fund schools. The problem is that the rebasing to relieve the recession pressure more than a decade ago became permanent and we never adjusted our spending when the recession ended. We never restored funding to pre-recession levels and continued to underfund our schools.
When you adjust for inflation, we are now spending 80 percent of what we spent in 2010. We have not kept pace with salaries, staffing needs or building needs. It has impacted instruction at a time when needs are increasing—amplified even more by the impact of COVID. Our County used to be a leader in the State and region in funding education. We cannot say that today.
The property tax increase I proposed is solely dedicated to Montgomery County Public Schools and it would cover salary increases that make up about three-quarters of the cost. State funding would cover the rest of MCPS’ request. You can read more about why the School District needs that much this year here.
It would still leave salaries and per pupil spending below other jurisdictions in the State—all of which have a lower cost of living than we do. So, we face an existential crisis of sorts, a fundamental inflection point: we either bring our spending back in line with our past performance and with competing jurisdictions or we further handicap the ability of the school system to meet our expectations. If you are concerned about school performance now, not meeting the needs of the school system will not improve the situation. If you are inclined to say that schools are not like they were, part of that may well be because we do not fund them like we did in the past. Not to mention that the student population and the degree of poverty is also more intense than it was in the past.
In the interest of trying to reduce the tax impact, I have also proposed to the Council a few ways to meet these needs, preserve needed services in our budget and still potentially lower the anticipated property tax rate increase by 2 or 3 cents. No matter how we ultimately arrive at a funding plan, the fact remains that investing in our teachers and school staff is an investment in families and our communities. We owe our children the best education we can give them. I do not want to put the school system in a situation where they cannot, for example, hire the teachers they need for special education, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes or social workers.
From a strictly selfish perspective, one of the dividends of adequately funding schools is that it protects our property values because our school system has been one of the leading factors motivating people to seek a home in Montgomery County. At last check, many people agree as you can see from recent survey results that rank Montgomery County the 11th-best County in the nation in which to live.
Time to Use Our Healthy OPEB Trust Fund
One way that we can mitigate some of the tax increase is to make sure we are managing our funds carefully. That is why I sent a memo to the Council this week urging Councilmembers to follow our actuary’s recommendation and use some of the OPEB trust fund for its intended purpose—to pay some of the health care costs for County retirees. The OPEB Trust fund was created to help cover the County’s obligation to pay for the health insurance of retirees. The Trust Fund is healthy and growing. Over the last five years alone, it has grown by more than $300 million (65 percent) to more than $750 million. It is now large enough that it regularly generates an average of more than $50 million annually in investment returns.
Our actuary is considered one of the leading actuarial firms in the country. According to its analysis, we can now make some withdrawals from the Trust fund and use it to replace about 1 to 1.5 cents of the tax rate to pay for retiree health benefits. The amount we would withdraw would be less than the average annual contribution, so I I the fund would continue to grow. Currently, we do not withdraw ANY funds from the Trust Fund for County retirees. All retiree health care costs are paid through the general fund—our tax dollars.
It is time to use the trust fund for its intended purpose so that we do not have search for ways to fund my recommended budget. This is significant money and the fiscally responsible thing to do is to use it. Moreover, the school system does exactly what I’m proposing for its share of the OPEB obligation—and the Council has approved this every year. If the Council were to application the same policy it wants to follow for MCPS, we would have to raise taxes another 1½ cents to be consistent. It makes NO sense to argue that it is a bad idea for the County, but a fine idea for the school system.
If the Council were to adopt the change in policy that I proposed to our OPEB process, we could reduce the taxes required to fund this budget by 1 to 1½ cents. Since I support the Council’s decision to reduce most of the MCPS reserve account by a tax equivalent of 1 cent, the needed tax increase would drop a little more.
Losing Federal Resources to Help Struggling Families
Recovery from the COVID health crisis seems strong in most ways, but too many families are still struggling with the rising cost of food, rent and other essentials. Part of that can be blamed on reduced work hours. We have noticed some businesses, while they have reopened, are still struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels of revenue. That means some families are not able to take home enough pay to meet today’s challenges without help. Family financial struggles could get worse for some people currently receiving Medicaid.
At last count, there were more than 200,000 people in Montgomery County receiving Medicaid benefits. That is a lot of people. This large number is the result of a decision by Federal administrators during the pandemic to keep everyone on Medicaid without requiring them to reapply. They did this because it was imperative to keep people healthy. Now, almost half of Medicaid recipients must go through a redetermination process and some may lose their Medicaid coverage if they no longer qualify.
This is why we have been working for the last few months to reach out and inform Medicaid clients about the unwinding process. We want every person potentially impacted by Medicaid unwinding to update their contact information in the State systems. This will have them receive important correspondence from the State in a timely manner and know what steps they need to take to complete the redetermination process. To ensure you do not miss any updates with Medicaid benefits or to apply, visit the Maryland Health Connection website.
County specialists are trying to help those losing coverage determine if they qualify for private health plans or County safety net programs for the uninsured, We call this Montgomery Cares.
In addition to changes in Medicaid, there have been changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. During the pandemic, all eligible households received the maximum allotment and every recipient saw an increase in their monthly benefit amount. That supplemental benefit ended March 1 and some households may find out that they no longer qualify for SNAP benefits. The State has information about replacing EBT benefits and other SNAP related information on the myMDTHINK website.
Data from April’s Household Pulse Survey through the Census Bureau found families earning between $50,000-$75,000 a year saw a dramatic rise in food insecurity issues. Only six percent were impacted in March, but that jumped to 26 percent of households last month.
There are currently around 5,000 households receiving SNAP benefits in Montgomery County every month than in 2019 before the pandemic. The County has launched an Office of Food Systems Resilience to help our departments and nonprofits focused on food insecurity work together to help families struggling to keep food on the table.
Montgomery History Day
We will celebrate Montgomery History Day from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, May 13, with a special event and ceremonies at Button Farm Living History Center in Germantown. For the past few weeks, the center has hosted a Harriet Tubman statue that is on a national tour. The public can visit by appointment through the end of May. It will be on display on Saturday.
Admission at the history center will be free on May 13 as the farm marks Tubman: Journey to Freedom Day. The Underground Railroad hero helped many slaves find their freedom. Historians will be there to discuss Ms. Tubman’s life as a suffragette. A story time for is planned for kids.
I will be there to present a proclamation and celebrate the life of one of our nation’s greatest heroes. I hope to see some of you there.
MCDOT Scooter Class Returns
Adults will have a chance to take part in the Department of Transportation’s free e-scooter trainings in Rockville on Saturday, May 13.
Participants can take a test ride, learn safety tips and get details on basic scooter laws. A valid driver’s license or ID is required to participate. The clinics are drop-in. No registration is required.
The clinic runs from 1-3 Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of Montgomery College on Hungerford Road. Those interested in e-scooters can stop in at any time during the two-hour window. Scooters will be available—you do not bring one.
Another class is set for Saturday, June 3, in Wheaton.
Besides potentially providing a lot of fun, these classes help potential scooter users learn safety skills and get comfortable on e-scooters. The County’s Vision Zero goal of eliminating serious crashes and fatalities on the road by the end of 2030 relies on all road and sidewalk users safely navigating the streets.
Our County Department of Transportation continues to be proactive in making streets safer, including while walking to and from school. We are in the middle of a comprehensive plan to visit more than 200 public schools for walk safety audits. Bike to Work Day is scheduled for Friday, May 19. Please register ahead of time and meet us at one of 7 pit stops this year by visiting BikeToWorkMetroDC.org.
The official end to COVID-19 public health emergency that we have been in for more than three years is coming this week. While COVID is not completely gone as a threat, especially to many of our vulnerable residents, we have effective testing, vaccines and therapies in place now.
As we have mentioned over the last several weeks, Montgomery County will continue to offer free bivalent boosters at our community clinics. Outreach will continue to help as many people as possible protect themselves with a shot. These vaccinations will also continue to be covered by insurance when you visit your health care provider, but like other health care, you may need to be in-network for this coverage. Check with your health care provider or insurance for details. Free COVID tests and facemasks are still available to the public at local libraries. Facemasks are still recommended for anyone experiencing COVID symptoms.
Data from County surveillance shows we have seen a rise in our case rate over the last two weeks, but we have yet to see a sizable increase in hospital visits. Our community level remains “low.”
One thing I would like to emphasize is the continuing importance of the vaccine. COVID is now the fourth-leading cause of death according to the CDC—and the only cause of death that can be avoided by getting a vaccination. There is really no reason why people should be dying of COVID--other than a refusal to get the protection that the vaccine offers. This is sad and unnecessary. A loss of life that causes pain and suffering for others who care about you should be avoided when the solution is as simple as a shot. If you are out there among those not getting vaccinated, as tempered as COVID seems right now, it is less tempered for the vaccinated and you are putting your life at risk. You have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it and is it worth it to your family to remain unvaccinated?” Please consider getting the vaccine.