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Speak Truth to Power: Where Have All the Taxpayers Gone?

It is a rare occasion when a citizen of Montgomery County has the ability to ask an elected official a question or inquire about county government policy — in public — about almost any subject. If you live north and west of Great Seneca Creek those opportunities are like solar eclipses, you may know when it is going to happen, but it doesn’t happen very often.

If you want to testify before the Planning Board, Board of Education, or County Council you must submit a request to be heard and a written copy of what you are going to speak about days before the event. Very rarely do officials put themselves in a position to be put on the spot in public. That is why it so troubling when regular people do not show up at events like County Executive Ike Leggett’s Budget Forum held last month at BlackRock Center for the Arts or Councilmember Rice’s Education Budget Forum held this last Wednesday at Northwest High School.

While these events were well attended — there was about 120 people in the Northwest cafeteria on Wednesday night and about 160 at Leggett's Budget Forum in January.

However, on Wednesday roughly 60 attendees were members of the Montgomery County Education Association — the local teachers union. (They were easy to count because they all wore red clothing as a sign of solitary.) Another 10 were county employees or Councilmember Rice’s staff. Another 10 were media folks. Another 10 were advocates for Montgomery College. Another 10 were from Progressive Maryland with anti-Trump signs to make a political point about national politics. Another five were Montgomery College staff there to support their boss, Dr. DeRionne Pollard. And another five were MCPS staff there to support Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith.

That leaves roughly 10 people attending because they care about the education budget, yet don’t have a vested interest in the budget or the process. The education budget is the top expenditure in the County. The MCPS budget makes up 49.8 percent of Montgomery County’s annual operating budget. If Montgomery College is included, education makes up 55.4 percent of the annual operating budget. That means $0.55 of every dollar the County takes in from property taxes goes to support education. Paying for public schools was the number one reason why the County Council had to enact an 8.7 percent increase in property taxes last year.

TO BE CLEAR – This is NOT an editorial for or against paying for education. Quality education is needed, necessary, and essential to the growth of any community. This is an editorial asking why the people who will hoot and holler about a tax increase in comments on the Germantown Pulse FaceBook Page will not attend a forum where they can voice their opinion directly to the people spending their money. To ask them, is there a better way? Is there a cheaper way? Have we looked at all the options?

There are tens of thousands of tax-paying property owners in the Germantown area, why was there so few that didn’t have a vested interest in the process at the Education Budget Forum held right here in Germantown?

The same question can be asked about County Executive Leggett’s Budget Forum in January. Why were there so few regular folks in attendance? Indeed, many of the very same people were at both events. The MCEA was well represented that night as well, as were activists for Montgomery College, the county libraries, parks and recreation, and public health organizations. But in a room full of people with an open floor where any comment or question could have been asked of the highest ranking elected official in the county, only one resident stood up and said taxes were too high. He got applause, of course, ironically, most of the people clapping were there to ask for more money for their personal pet passion.

Of course, Leggett and Rice, along with Smith, and Pollard had nothing to do with the poor turnout at the budget forums. The events was well publicized, and anyone with a passing interest in local news and happenings should have known about the budget forums

Maybe it is because residents feel that their voice won’t matter. The County Executive puts together his budget and goes on tour through the County at Budget Forums to hear from residents. He hears the same things from the same people every year. The activists plead their case, and that one taxpayer stands up and says his piece. At least in Germantown, Leggett has been performing the same show to virtually the same audience every year, with minor variations of notes and subtle changes in tone.

For its part, MCPS puts their budget together, the Board of Education approves it and sends it to the County Executive, and every year the total is higher, and every year enrollment in MCPS grows while tax revenue in Montgomery County decreases. In Montgomery County, the only people that need to be convinced that schools need more money are the nine County Council members — all of which are elected from the same political party. Perhaps, the taxpayer feels out of the loop. There are other jurisdictions in this country where the annual school budget is approved by the voters every year.

And good on the teachers union for being at both events. It is important to their organization and rank and file to make their voice be heard. The MCEA was in full-force at last year’s County Budget Forum, and the Council approved a tax increase. It appears to be effective. Shame on the taxpayers for voicing their opinions.

As Craig Rice told the audience at Wednesday’s Education Budget Forum, he and political office holders like him expect to hear from the teacher’s union; they don’t expect to hear from Jane Q. Public and John B. Ordinary Citizen. When the public and ordinary citizens raise their voices, elected leaders take note. It appears to be effective.

The adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease appears to be true.

Why are taxpayers in Germantown not raising their voice when given the chance? Is it because as an “urbanized census-designated place,” they have been conditioned that they will be ignored by the folks in Rockville? If taxpayers aren’t willing to raise their voice and speak up to elected officials, chances are they will continue to be ignored, and it will be business as usual. Or maybe, the vast majority of residents are just going to wait out these next 18 months and make their voices heard when on Election Day in 2018 when the County Council and County Executive are up for re-election.

On second thought, that is doubtful.