Of­fi­cials Get Can­did About Fate of Raises for County Work­ers

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Mi­randa S. Spi­vack

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.

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