A less-than-joyful budget season set for Montgomery

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010

Montgomery County officials are preparing for a super-size and front-loaded budget season that is likely to dominate much of the county's political agenda through the fall, winter and into spring.

Even before Thanksgiving tables are cleared and Black Friday shoppers seize the season's best deals, officials in one of the nation's wealthiest counties are entering a period that promises to be less than joyous. Just six months from finishing their most-recent budget, Montgomery officials are preparing for a 10-week burst of activity meant to shake up old government habits before the county's next spending plan is crafted.

This week, Montgomery's Office of Legislative Oversight will formally present its diagnosis of what is driving the county's chronic budget problems. Officials briefed on the findings say they reflect what county officials already know - only more so: Soaring health, retirement and other compensation costs for government workers, combined with a drop-off in revenue, are threatening to starve crucial services for residents.

Two weeks later - and just a day after they are sworn in Dec. 6 - the county's mostly familiar cast of elected leaders will be greeted at their first council meeting with what some county employees might see as a Scrooge-worthy wish list.

Legislative analysts will detail steps the county could take to bring its generous salaries and benefits, and its high tax rates, into balance. Their catalog of options will target what the analysts call "a recurring annual mismatch between revenues and expenditures." Among the ideas being considered: rolling back health benefits, increasing pension costs for public employees and eliminating jobs.

"We can't sustain what we've been doing," said Del. Craig L. Rice (D-Upcounty), who will be one of two new faces on the nine-member council. The other is Silver Spring political organizer Hans Riemer (D-At Large).

Maintaining high-quality education, public safety and safety-net services will require "revamping some of the things that caused us to be in the predicament we're in," Rice said. "That boils down to pensions, benefits, salaries and all of the multiple positions we have that are sometimes duplicative."

On pensions, there must be "some sort of contribution from our employees that's greater than it is now," Rice said. At the same time, he has met with teachers union officials to talk about cutting administrative spending, saying there can be no "sacred cows."

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said the months-long effort by legislative analysts will help make the case for change, particularly in the way pension and other benefits are distributed and paid for. "That's what's driving the deficit," Andrews said.

"The key is to demonstrate that other options are worse," Andrews said. The alternatives to limiting spending on benefits are increasing taxes or slashing vital government functions, he said.

The budding proposals have faced some push-back in Montgomery, which has long been friendly territory for public-employee unions.

In flush years, county officials increased salaries and benefits faster than their private-sector counterparts, leaving large costs. As the nation's economic downturn rolled on, raises were reduced and then eliminated. Thousands of county workers were furloughed this year, resulting in a de facto pay cut.

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