Montgomery cuts budget by $203 million

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

Montgomery County is going on a diet. And this time, officials say, they really mean it.

On Thursday, it took the County Council just a few minutes to formally adopt a $4.27 billion budget for fiscal 2011 that trimmed spending by $203 million, or 4.5 percent, from what it approved last year.

One budget down, five to go.

In a break from past practice, the council will turn its attention to a six-year balanced budget plan. Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) is pushing her colleagues to endorse the more conservative approach next month. Previously, the fiscal plan included annual shortfalls that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and would need to be closed each year.

"We're going to be leaner for the foreseeable future," Floreen said. "It's a new era for Montgomery County."

A draft of the long-term fiscal plan, submitted to the council by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), shows spending for county agencies, after covering retiree health costs and bigger reserves, growing by less than 1 percent in fiscal 2012 and dropping by more than 2 percent in 2013. By contrast, spending grew 9.8 percent in 2007 and 7.4 percent in 2008.

But it was clear Thursday, even after weeks of grim income-tax revenue projections and soul-searching over the role of government, that the struggle over public spending in one of the nation's richest counties is just beginning. With the fiscal pie expected to expand much more slowly than in past years, the personnel costs that make up the bulk of the budget are on the table for possible cuts.

Thursday's votes prompted boos and catcalls from a group of dozens of police officers who protested the canceled raises and forced furloughs that were part of the final budget deal. "We protect kids, too," read one flier held up by an officer, a jab at the powerful public schools, which rejected calls for employee furloughs. "$4.3 billion in political priorities," read another.

After the council session, talk among police was about retribution, from traffic tickets to ballot boxes. One officer quipped that he'll be on the lookout for council members making a "rolling stop" on their commute to work. Another said members are looking ahead to the Democratic primary in September, when some incumbents on the county's all-Democratic council will face challenges.

"We'll get our day. We'll get the votes out there," said Cpl. Gary Turner, huddling with frustrated colleagues on the steps of the council building. "There are officers out there who just want to be paid according to what we do. We put our lives on the line every day, and we want to be taken seriously."

A key factor driving Montgomery's budget has been salary and benefits costs for public employees. Raises have outpaced those in the private sector in many cases, and the public schools have added employees faster than the population has grown.

Over the past decade, total spending on salaries and wages for government workers and school employees, after accounting for inflation, was up about a third to more than $2 billion a year.

When Leggett called for trimming cost-of-living increases for teachers after he took office in 2006, he faced protests and little support from the council.

When Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) sought to modestly reduce cost-of-living increases during an earlier budget season, employees handed out "Wanted" posters branding them "contract busters" and "COLA thieves."

But the depth of the recession and warnings that Montgomery could lose its coveted and cost-reducing bond rating spooked elected officials and jolted political alliances.

They also forced an acknowledgement that county officials must take a new approach.

"What the county's dealing with is not something we chose to deal with, but something that landed on us and that we have to deal with," Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said earlier this month when the council voted unanimously to break union contracts by imposing a salary freeze and undoing a controversial set of retirement benefits known as "phantom" cost of living increases.

"No one envisioned at the time any of the agreements were made that we would face an economic catastrophe of the magnitude we are dealing with now," he added.

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