Streamlined development, increased English literacy and closing the achievement gap are just three of the ways Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett plans to move the county forward.
Leggett spoke Wednesday to a packed house at the Silver Spring Civic Building that included Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) of Mitchellville and state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) of Takoma Park.
The two-term executive proposed three new initiatives aimed at expanding entrepreneurship and increasing education.
Declaring the county “open for business,” not just open to business, the executive announced an initiative to shorten the time it takes development projects to come to fruition.
He asked county and outside agencies to put their heads together and identify areas where Montgomery can substantially change the way it does business.
Noting that for every dollar Montgomery invests in adult English literacy, the county realizes $3 in higher productivity, Leggett announced his English Language on Demand initiative, which is aimed at providing English language training to those who seek it. Leggett said while the diversity of languages spoken in Montgomery is an asset, English is often the ticket to opportunity and success.
The 2010 U.S. Census found that for the first time, Montgomery is a majority-minority county with more than 30 percent of its residents foreign born.
“I recommend as a goal that every adult in this county who wants to learn English – no matter where they come from – has the opportunity to do so,” Leggett said.
But as it works to educate its adult population in the English language, Montgomery must also continue to expand educational opportunities for students, he said.
Calling his third initiative a Partnership for Educational Achievement, the executive said the effort will target under-performing students to help close the county’s achievement gap.
Under Leggett’s leadership, the county has funded Montgomery County Public Schools at about $2 billion a year. It has also continued to rehabilitate old schools and build new schools, and spends about an additional $240 million annually on education beyond the MCPS budget.
But there remains an achievement gap between the students who have the resources to make the most of their educational opportunities and those who do not, Leggett said.
“County government and community service organizations must work more closely together to help tear down the remaining barriers to learning and close achievement gaps – once and for all,” he said.
Leggett reminded the audience that during the past six years, the county has wrestled with deficits and downturns.
Comparing Montgomery County to an ocean liner, Leggett said that above board, the ship appeared to be steady and strong, but below the water line was leaking and risked running short of fuel on a defective engine.
Weathering the economic storm in that weakened vessel proved a struggle.
But the county has begun to emerge, ever stronger, he said.
“We are Montgomery County. and, thanks to our collective efforts, our ship is heading straight into the future – ever stronger for the challenges we faced,” he said.
By closing $2.6 billion in budget gaps with taxpayers paying more and receiving a little less in services, and by eliminating 10 percent of the county’s workforce, subjecting those still employed to pay freezes, furloughs and a higher costs of health insurance and retirement, the county weathered the storm, he said.
“All these choices pained me greatly, but they were the right decisions for Montgomery County,” he said. “Together we have repaired the ship and fully retooled the engine, and placed our ship on course in the right direction.”
And while Montgomery might be moving forward, it will be gridlocked if the federal government does not resolve its budgetary woes and the state does not provide localities with the means of improving their transportation systems to meet needs now and into the future, Leggett said.
Montgomery is doing its part to bring to completion projects like the 16-mile Purple Line, a light rail line that would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton; the 15-mile Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus rapid transit line that would connect Clarksburg to Shady Grove; and a network of BRT weaving mass transit across the county.
But it cannot and should not shoulder the entire financial burden alone, he said.
“Several years ago, I virtually stood alone in advocating for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax. It wasn’t popular then, and it isn’t popular now,” Leggett said. “But we needed it then, and we still need it now.”
As Maryland’s economic engine, he said investing in transportation here pays off “big time” for all Marylanders.
The executive noted the ambition he has for the future, and assured the county that it can be done.
“I know the agenda that I have outlined here is ambitious,” he said. “But, I also believe it is achievable -- and necessary if we want to continue to move this county forward.”