At a time when public employees unions are fighting for their lives elsewhere in the United States, the munificence of Montgomery’s benefits package was captured in an e-mail this month notifying workers, in the understated prose of a Q&A fact sheet, that “the County will no longer cover the cost of purchasing medications used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED).”
Even in the private sector, where many large private employers provide some coverage for drugs such as Viagra, only a small minority do so in Montgomery County style — without limits.
Officials said ending the ED benefit for county government employees, retirees and their families would save $400,000 a year.
Iris Mersky, a county therapist who has worked for more than two decades counseling victims of assault and the families of those who have been killed, came up against what seemed like a far crueler cut: Her job is slated to be eliminated.
Officials want to consolidate a pair of support programs — one for sexual assault and general crime victims, another focused on domestic violence — by cutting several jobs and saving about $500,000.
“Forget finding employment for myself. That’s secondary. I have lots of skills,” Mersky said. “We’ve got this whole caseload. Many of them have not been in treatment before. They come into this horrible situation, and I provide a framework to help people get through this.”
An air of permanence
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed a $4.35 billion budget this month, representing a slight increase of 1.8 percent. Last year, the budget actually fell, something that hadn’t happened in the wealthy Washington suburb in more than 40 years. But Leggett’s current proposal has proved even more unsettling for many, in part because of the cumulative impact of previous cutbacks.
There is also an air of permanence to some of Leggett’s proposals that has shaken the preferred narrative in Montgomery, namely that everything is certain to bounce back to the way things were after a few tight years.
But the soaring property values and incomes that helped drive the expansion of Montgomery's generous government services and employee benefits during the boom years are unlikely to return soon, if ever. Taxes are already bumping up against political or legal limits. And the county has yet to set aside billions of dollars needed to cover employee pensions and retiree health-care costs.
Leggett’s decision to break with the results of the county’s collective-bargaining process, coming amid the intense national debate over fiscal stewardship and employee rights, has sharpened the local rhetoric. Instead of furloughing workers, a temporary step he proposed last year, Leggett is proposing that employees increase what they pay for health-care coverage and retirement benefits. That amounts to a lasting rollback in take-home pay.