Montgomery furlough proposal spurs equity debate among county employees

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Montgomery County's dimming fiscal picture is sharpening a debate over equity among its employees, and some officials are pushing what they call a more progressive approach to managing cutbacks.

As part of his $4.3 billion budget proposal last month, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed 10 forced days off for thousands of county employees, amounting to a 3.8 percent salary cut. Such furloughs have become a common tactic from California to Prince George's County as the recession has battered budgets. But until this year, Leggett had resisted.

Now, among the questions bubbling up in the county are these: Is it fair that Jocelyn Smith-Joseph, a coordinator for the disabled who made $47,028 last year, would be forced to take the same number of furlough days as Carla Reid, who received $194,537 as Montgomery's head of permitting services?

And is it right -- not to mention affordable, given grim new figures released Tuesday -- that teachers, uniformed public safety workers and many other county employees are exempt from furloughs?

Officials said Tuesday that income-tax revenue is down sharply again, opening a new $44 million hole in the budget and adding $100 million to the budget gap for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. That comes on top of what seems like a modest $24 million drop in revenue announced last week that had spooked officials.

Leggett said he recommended furloughs for next year's budget because the savings would help make up for revenue reductions that forced him to propose the county's first overall cut in spending in more than 40 years. His plan, which officials said furloughs about 6,000 employees, would save $15 million.

But members of the County Council are considering shaking up that model. An idea advanced by member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and others would be to make the furloughs more "progressive."

The outlines are in flux, but county staff are working up one proposal that would divide workers into three tiers: employees making more than $100,000, workers receiving between $50,000 and $100,000, and those being paid less than $50,000. Higher-paid workers would take more furlough days, lower-paid workers would take fewer, and the county would still save $15 million. Maryland has taken a similar approach for furloughs of state workers.

Other council officials have pushed to greatly expand the pool of employees who would be furloughed by including uniformed public safety workers as well as employees from the public schools, Montgomery College and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Council staff director Stephen B. Farber said the $15 million target could be achieved in 1.5 days if more than 30,000 county employees took the furloughs.

"If the entire workforce agreed to take a 0.6 percent salary hit for 1.5 furlough days, then one-fifth of the workforce -- including the people who help clear the snow, drive the buses, clean the buildings, and care for the poor and disabled -- would not have to take a 3.8 percent hit," Farber wrote in a budget briefing for the county Tuesday.

School employees in Anne Arundel County and public safety workers in Prince George's were furloughed "without disrupting services," Farber added. "The issue is not the ability to do so, but the will to do so."

Given steep budget shortfalls, other county officials also have suggested that furloughing more employees shouldn't necessarily result in smaller pay cuts. More employees taking the same 3.8 percent salary cut could raise more than the $15 million originally envisioned. Salaries and benefits make up the bulk of Montgomery's spending, and those outlays have risen sharply over the past decade. Addressing the effect of those increases would be an important piece of any effort to control county spending long term.

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