Council Rejects Cut in Raises

County employee Sean Collins has a message for council members struggling to balance the fiscal 2009 budget.
County employee Sean Collins has a message for council members struggling to balance the fiscal 2009 budget. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

Montgomery County Council members voted yesterday to increase local energy taxes and rejected an effort to reduce raises for government workers as they closed in on a final spending plan for fiscal 2009.

In a three-hour debate punctuated by applause and jeering from an audience of hundreds, council members also voted to reduce the property tax rate by 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, but they left unresolved how such a move would affect homeowners and businesses.

The council is racing to close a nearly $300 million shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1 and struggling to find the right mix of tax increases, spending trims and revisions to employee contracts.

Yesterday, council members signaled that property owners will almost certainly be looking at higher taxes by the time work on the budget wraps up next week. How much more and how the burden will be divided between residential and commercial properties remains to be decided.

"It would be nice if we didn't have to raise taxes at all," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). "But revenues are down, and we're going to have to do something we don't want to do. We've got a lot of undesirable choices."

Council members voted unanimously to raise the local energy tax residents pay to light and heat their homes. The increase is expected to cost Montgomery households an average of $10 a year and to raise $11 million for the county, officials said.

The council's heated debate over union contracts highlighted stark philosophical differences. As school officials, nurses, social workers and sheriff's deputies watched in a packed auditorium, council members voted 6 to 2 to reject a proposal to shave $40 million from labor agreements that provide most general government workers with 8 percent raises.

Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) were the only council members to support rolling back pay raises by two percentage points. They had the backing of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

"Shared sacrifice should be the approach when a community faces adversity," Andrews said over boos from the audience.

That view was not endorsed by most of his colleagues, including Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who called workers "our county's most valuable resource" and said they are "feeling pain" from higher prices for gas and food.

Council members are under pressure from union leaders and workers to stick to negotiated contracts and to fully fund the school system budget, which includes raises for teachers and other school employees. Trachtenberg said that she had been lobbied by teachers and School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and that Weast called her twice at home on the eve of yesterday's vote.

Outside the auditorium, a 20-year transportation agency employee, Victor Taylor, expressed the view of many workers. "That's money that has been promised to us," he said. "If they won't pay our salaries, we can't plow their streets, fix those ditches in front of their houses or take care of those trees."

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