Montgomery can't afford higher pay for county workers

Thursday, November 19, 2009

STRUGGLING to balance their budgets, many local governments in Maryland have frozen salaries for county employees and teachers, cut wages through unpaid furloughs, eliminated unfilled jobs and fired workers. The state government's workforce has fared no better. That's something for Montgomery County officials to bear in mind as they conduct crucial contract negotiations with public employees' unions while facing the prospect of more than $400 million in cuts to the projected $4.3 billion budget that takes effect next summer.

Montgomery has long been a generous public employer -- some would say a spendthrift one. Its workers' salaries and benefits are among the best in the country, and as a result the county has attracted excellent personnel. But at a time when many American workers are thankful to have jobs at all, most public-sector pay increases in the current economic climate are simply not affordable -- not without the likelihood of countervailing layoffs, furloughs and tax increases.

This is particularly true for teachers and other school employees, who make up about two-thirds of the total county workforce of 33,000. Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and the schools' unions have recently begun contract negotiations that could have a major impact on the county's fiscal health. Teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other school system staff members last year agreed to forfeit their cost-of-living adjustments, a sensible sacrifice that saved the county $89 million. Although most still got modest step increases, they are now in a mood to demand raises that the county can ill afford, barring a significant economic uptick in the coming months. Mr. Weast must hold the line.

Beyond the schools, other county unions are also negotiating new contracts with County Executive Isiah Leggett. Mr. Leggett, who has a knack for smoothing over problems as they arise, sometimes with the emollient of taxpayer dollars, is under an equal obligation. But the fact is that the outcome of bargaining with the schools' unions, and particularly the teachers' contract, will set the important precedent by virtue of its size. If the county cannot restrain salaries and benefits, which constitute 80 percent of the overall budget, it will be in dire straits.

In the past three years, Mr. Leggett has made $1.2 billion in budget cuts, but much of it was low-hanging fruit, easily overlooked by the county's nearly 1 million residents. The coming year's problems look worse. County officials reckon they can eliminate three-quarters of the projected $400 million deficit for next year before they get to more painful steps such as slashing county programs. But that will not be possible without freezing salaries of county workers, among other measures.

Fairfax County and other large, wealthy jurisdictions in the Washington area have kept a lid on salaries, so Montgomery workers are not being asked to forfeit what others are getting. It's an unpleasant prospect, demanded by unpleasant times.

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