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Montgomery council lines up against Leggett’s strategy for slowing spending

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The Montgomery County Council has left Isiah Leggett out in the cold.

Despite early council praise for the county executive’s budget approach, a majority of council members have jettisoned Leggett’s most controversial proposal — his bid to make many employees pay thousands of dollars more each year in health-care costs to help slow the county’s soaring spending on benefits.

“Brutal” is how council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) described Leggett’s plan, and his colleagues have been no nicer.

“Unbearable,” said Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville).

“Drastic,” was the word from Craig Rice (D-Upcounty).

It was a stinging rejection from a council whose members have been calling for bold and lasting action to limit government spending.

Leggett (D) had proposed upping the share of health premiums for government employees from at least 20 to at least 30 percent, and he added a surcharge based on income. An employee making $55,000 would pay between $1,281 and $3,073 more per year to maintain the same plan. County spending on health care has more than doubled in a decade, to $315 million, and Leggett’s plan would have saved $19 million.

On Thursday in Rockville, the influential Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee took up Leggett’s plan, and the committee’s three members made clear their opposition.

Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) was greeted with cheers from yellow-clad members of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization after saying she and her colleagues were rejecting Leggett’s health-care proposal, as well as others on retirement benefits.

The Council Office Building, just across Jefferson Street from Leggett’s offices, hummed with activity Thursday. Gino Renne, head of the government employees union, met in the cafeteria with dozens of workers who had come to make their presence felt, then rushed off to a meeting with Ervin and leaders of the police and firefighters unions to talk about what comes next.

School union officials, meanwhile, buttonholed council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), pressing their case.

One way council members say they plan to make up some of the money they won’t be saving with Leggett’s health plan is to spread some of the benefits pain to school employees, who make up more than two-thirds of the county workforce.

School unions are pushing back hard. Teachers and other school workers pay a smaller percentage of their health-care premiums. If they choose an HMO, for instance, they pay 5 percent of the premium, an arrangement meant to spur employees to select cheaper plans. School union leaders say it’s wrong to reduce their members’ benefits to hurt other county workers less.

Teachers union head Doug Prouty called it a “false dichotomy,” saying other savings can be found to protect school and government workers from painful benefits cuts. One possibility would be setting aside less for future retiree health care; another would be allocating less cash for capital projects.

Council members insist that throwing out Leggett’s health plan doesn’t mean they’ve given up on making big changes to address the county’s budget problems. They said they are working to find long-term savings on health care, not just shifting costs to employees. And they say they are going to go further than Leggett in finding retirement savings.

Ervin said she and council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) plan to deliver aggressive budget savings targets to union and county negotiators, who are set to begin a new round of contract talks next week. Plans are for Ervin and Berliner to represent the council in the talks.

The compensation changes proposed by Leggett — which are being contested in court and before labor arbitrators in a fight over collective bargaining rights — would have saved $30 million.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get $30 million in savings some way. The question is: What’s the package going to look like?” Elrich said. “It’s sort of: How do you want your hair cut? When I was a kid, my father took me the barber, and I really didn’t have a choice.”

Leggett said he noted to the council from the get-go that there are many ways to achieve the needed savings.

“I have been committed to long-term structural changes for a long time. We’ve talked about this in generalities. But every time we get to the point of making hard decisions, we tend to back away,” he said.

But, he added, he’s giving council members the “benefit of the doubt” when they say they will be crafting serious plans in the two weeks before they are scheduled to vote on the key components of the county’s $4 billion-plus budget.

“I said you can do it several different ways,” Leggett said. “The bottom line is: What way do you want to do it?”

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