By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 11:12 PM
Spending on health and retirement benefits for Montgomery County workers soared by more than 120 percent over the past decade, partly driven by a swift rise in pension costs, according to a legislative analysis that has already spurred a call for legal changes.
Salaries were also up swiftly in that period, growing by 50 percent overall and up to 80 percent for some individuals, according to Montgomery's Office of Legislative Oversight, which spent months analyzing the causes of persistent budget shortfalls in the wealthy county.
"Montgomery County, like many other governments, now faces the extraordinary challenge of bringing projected revenues and spending into alignment, which can only be accomplished by raising more revenue or making reforms that bend the future cost curves downward," according to county analysts.
The rapidly increasing cost per employee to the county was soaking up an ever-greater percentage of agencies' budgets, analysts reported. For example, pension costs per employee increased at more than twice the rate of a government plan that more closely mirrored the 401(k) plans seen in the private sector.
After sharply raising energy taxes this year - and with other taxes bumping up against state or self-imposed limits - County Council members say they are scouring government operations for savings and will pursue a variety of reforms rather than relying on tax increases this time around.Ervin proposal
In the first concrete proposal, former labor organizer Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who is set to become Montgomery's new council president Dec. 7, will submit a bill Tuesday to change bargaining practices. Ervin said the bill has unanimous support from her colleagues and would make a significant change in the intricate procedures that shape county spending.
Under current law, when the county and its unions fail to reach an agreement on labor contracts, an arbitrator weighs in on which side has the more reasonable proposals. The arbitrator is supposed to take into account a half-dozen factors, including bargaining history; comparisons of wages and benefits within Montgomery and elsewhere in the region; public welfare; and the ability of the county to pay.
Ervin's proposal would change county law to say the arbitrator "must first evaluate and give the highest priority to the ability of the county to pay for additional short-term and long-term expenditures." The arbitrator would have to consider state and local limits on tax increases and the added burden on taxpayers.
Advocates of the change hope that it will give the county greater control over its personnel costs.Labor leaders upset
Reaction from county labor leaders was forceful.
"This bill is a political attack on a process that has worked well for many years," Walt Bader, a longtime police union leader in Montgomery, said in an e-mail. "It is an insult to rank and file police officers and other county employees who have VOLUNTARILY forfeited scheduled pay increases two years in a row (a concession that averages $8,000 per police officer) in full recognition of the county's fiscal situation."
In an interview, Bader called Ervin's proposal a distraction and characterized the work by legislative analysts as an effort to "demonize employees." More than 80 percent of tax-supported spending went to salaries and benefits, according to the analysts.
"Government is employees. It's people. It's not a product," Bader said. "What is it worth when you call 911 to have someone save your life. What's a cop worth then?"
Some county officials questioned the potential effectiveness of Ervin's proposal, saying there was no evidence that the change would have altered the results of earlier negoatiations.
Ervin, the former dean of students at the National Labor College, said the proposal is reasonable given the far-reaching disconnect between county taxing and spending, as outlined by legislative analysts.
"I have a responsibility for a million residents," Ervin said. "I don't think it's outrageous or out of the question for county taxpayers to play some role in the disposition of these arbitrations."A briefing
Schools officials, union leaders and state officials have been invited to the council meeting Tuesday to receive a briefing on the Office of Legislative Oversight's detailed findings. The invitations are part of an effort that council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) has orchestrated to get a front-loaded and rigorous budget debate underway.
Floreen had pushed for the oversight report and has said it is crucial because the problems are so serious and the opportunities so great for getting sidetracked on disputes about basic facts and figures. She cited the words of former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) as an inspiration.
"As Moynihan said, 'You can have your own opinions, but you can't have your own facts,' " Floreen said. "I think this will make the conversation move forward. . . . It's better to face facts early on than to argue about finding a way around them later."