Budget Battle Became Personal

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2008

To reach a final agreement today on a spending plan after much contentious debate, the Montgomery County Council had to reconcile not just the numbers but the unusually personal and opposite views of two members.

Valerie Ervin and Duchy Trachtenberg represented the extremes of the central budget dilemma over whether to fully fund labor contracts for public employees.

Ervin, a single mother who once relied on union benefits from a job checking groceries, was the most outspoken voice against breaking the contracts. Trachtenberg, also a union ally, backed a reduction in raises to ensure funding for services such as mental health care for people including her son, who has chronic schizophrenia.

Both have since signed on to a $4.3 billion budget for fiscal 2009 that is scheduled for a final vote today. The compromise struck last week leaves contracts untouched, brings property tax increases of about 13 percent for the average homeowner and requires an additional $16 million in unspecified cuts to government operations and public schools.

"At first, this was billed as being about money; in the end it was about philosophical differences, and they found a balance," said School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who tracked the deliberations.

Ervin (D-Silver Spring) and Trachtenberg (D-At Large) were elected in 2006 with the backing of key local labor unions but found themselves at odds over contracts that provide most general government workers with 8 percent raises.

At two emotional budget hearings, hundreds of police officers, firefighters, nurses, library aides and other workers turned out to protect their contracts. They greeted Ervin like a rock star, with cheers and a standing ovation. Trachtenberg was called a traitor, her remarks interrupted with boos and her picture featured on a "wanted" poster.

In the heat of the debate to close a shortfall of almost $300 million, Trachtenberg told the story of her son, to make the case that union contracts should not be funded at the expense of government services.

Trachtenberg's son Wally, who is in his 30s, has been hospitalized at Manhattan Psychiatric Center in New York City since 2003 because, she said, he was failed by inadequately funded mental health services in the county. During a hearing the Friday before Mother's Day, she had a pained expression as she told the audience that she would be driving to New York to see him for the occasion.

"I look forward to the day when I can actually have my son come home and receive the services he needs in the county where I live," she said.

"There are a lot of people like my son who need services, and we can't say no to them," Trachtenberg said in a subsequent interview. "Beyond the need to fund contracts, we need to fund services. We have to strike a balance."

Trachtenberg is doing a balancing act of her own as she tries to establish herself as a steward of fiscal prudence. She was appointed to lead the council's fiscal committee by the late Marilyn Praisner, a mentor and close friend. Trachtenberg said she has an obligation to look out for the hundreds of thousands of residents who do not carry union cards.

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