Officials Get Candid About Fate of Raises for County Workers
Montgomery County officials, already worried about slowing revenue growth, are facing a big bill for public employee pay increases. But until recently, few mentioned the issue in public, focusing their budget talks on the cost of programs, rather than people.
County Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) altered the debate last week, issuing a warning to labor leaders that union-negotiated pay raises could be at risk next year.
“I wanted to make clear to folks that the road ahead is not a smooth one, and they need to be prepared for these kinds of challenges,” she said after outlining the county’s money woes during a sparsely attended council hearing on wage packages.
“I am not sure that everyone in the rank and file, let alone every one of the union leaders, understands that issue.”
Montgomery’s proposed raises for county employees and the school system are among the region’s most generous, providing a 4 percent increase to many county employees and a nearly 5 percent raise to school system employees for each of the next three years.
With other built-in step increases, some employees’ pay will rise even more. Of the school system’s requested $137 million budget increase for next year, $122 million is tied to increased wages and benefits, schools chief Jerry D. Weast has said.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) angered Weast and school board officials when he offered the school system about $117 million more than current levels in his proposed budget. School officials have been lobbying the council to fully fund their $137 million request.
Other jurisdictions in the region are eyeing more modest pay packages. In Fairfax County, which, like Montgomery, is in the midst of figuring out its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, county employees are tentatively expected to receive a 2.9 percent raise. In Prince George’s, county employees got a 3.5 percent raise this year; school employees got a 5 percent raise this year and are in the midst of new contract talks.
President Bush has recommended a 3 percent raise for most federal employees.
The council is expected to approve the county pay plan Tuesday. But next year, the second year of the three-year contracts, the council might have to discuss pay again, depending on how much money is available. The county is facing a projected $269 million shortfall out of a budget of more than $4 billion.
“I do think it is important that we understand the impact when we increase our expenditures. We are talking about a very ugly year next year,” Praisner said at a hearing last week.
The county hasn’t had a contentious debate over public employee contracts for several years. Praisner recalled the early ’90s, when the issue was “whether we could retain jobs” rather than hand out raises.
The school system’s agreements with its employees will cost the county at least $577 million over the next three years, said council member Phil Andrews (DGaithersburg-Rockville).
“The school system’s goals are excellent and well-presented. We have to ask the question, ‘Can they accomplish those for less than they are proposing in the budget?’ ” he said.
Andrews and Praisner also have pointed to another expensive agreement crafted by the administration of former county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) allowing firefighters to retire after 20 years rather than 25 years. That is about to kick in, they noted.
Both cautioned that other public safety unions should not assume they can get the same deal.
The willingness of elected officials to talk openly about what has largely been a forbidden topic in Montgomery might signal a new political climate in the Democratic-dominated county where few politicians are eager to alienate organized labor.
The conversation about wage increases began quietly several weeks ago when Leggett mentioned them as he outlined his efforts to plug a nearly $175 million budget gap left by Duncan. That quickly rose to almost $200 million because of an unanticipated shortage of state education funds. With the state facing its own $1.5 billion shortfall, the outlook for more state aid next year isn’t particularly good, Leggett said.
The messages about hard times ahead are not being warmly received. Gino Renne, head of the county’s largest public employee union, chose not to respond to Praisner at a hearing last week and did not respond to a request for an interview.
Walt Bader, who negotiated the contract for the county’s police officers, told Praisner that county officials had been willing a few years ago to pay millions in cost overruns for the nearly $100 million performing arts center at Strathmore but seemed indifferent to the needs of police officers.
“You can die here, but you can’t live here,” he said, referring to long-standing complaints by police and firefighters that their wages make it difficult to keep pace with the cost of living in Montgomery, among the region’s highest.
Weast, who has told the council that the school system needs all the elements of his budget plan, stepped up his campaign to persuade the council to fund his nearly $2 billion request. He drafted a resolution, which the school board approved Thursday, urging the council to back his budget. The school board has approved a three-year contract with employees, and Weast is eager to fund it.