A Surfeit of Sweetheart Deals

Sunday, May 18, 2008

IN MONTGOMERY County, the sweetheart deals for public employees unions come so fast and furious that it can be tough to keep track of them all. On Wednesday, the County Council made headlines by leaving intact 8 percent salary increases for most government workers -- much more than most private-sector workers get -- despite tumbling revenue and soaring property taxes. Meanwhile, three other votes to shower county workers with tens of millions of dollars more in raises and benefits slipped under the radar.

In a series of 7 to 1 votes -- with council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) casting the lone dissenting vote -- the council:

· Increased pensions for the longest-serving police officers to 86.4 percent of their highest salary from 76 percent, a 14 percent increase;

· Approved a 28 percent compounded pay increase for firefighters over three years, with the biggest chunk of it -- a 10.5 percent boost that alone will cost taxpayers $19 million -- coming in 2010, which happens to be a local election year; and

· Boosted the county retirement contribution for thousands of government workers to 8 percent of salary from the current 6 percent -- an increase of one-third that helps lift their overall compensation by about 10 percent in one year.

Read the fine print of those contracts, and there are other staggeringly generous terms. Taken together, they amount to a long-term commitment that may help push property tax bills sharply higher in coming years. After all, 90 percent of spending by the schools and 70 percent by county government agencies is on employees.

On the positive side, there are hints -- but only hints -- that some council members are starting to grasp this. In approving the county's $4.3 billion budget last week, the council ordered up some $16 million in unspecified cuts in employee expenditures, to be divided equally between the schools and county agencies. One or two council members who have been loath to confront the unions until now managed to say publicly that in the future, the unions should make some concessions in tough budgetary times. Mr. Andrews, joined by council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large), held their ground in arguing for trimming increases despite jeers and boos from scores of union members who attended a public hearing.

The all-Democratic council, not to mention successive county executives, have long been beholden to public employees unions. No one noticed or complained too much in boom times. In the current environment, with deficits looming and property tax bills through the roof, even the pro-labor council members may have to take notice of the fact that long-standing norms -- including massive annual pay increases for the county's well-regarded workforce -- are simply no longer affordable.

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