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Montgomery officials look for ways to close $300 million budget gap

Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who was unanimously elected by her colleagues Tuesday to take over as president during the new council's first year, said that "the private sector started making these kinds of cuts 25 years ago."

County residents have made it clear that they are concerned about "the unending trending up of health care and pension costs," Ervin said.

Ervin and labor interests

Ervin's experience as a labor organizer and school board member leaves her well positioned to help lead the county through what promises to be a tough political fight, some council members said.

"No one is more qualified . . . in dealing with those interrelated issues than our colleague Valerie," said Roger Berliner (D-Betheseda-Potomac), who nominated Ervin. Berliner was selected as council vice president, a position he held last year. "As a former union organizer, she has a demonstrated passion for and commitment to helping working families," he said.

But her history of organizing workers in agriculture and other industries didn't stop the head of Montgomery's government employees union, Gino Renne, from slamming Ervin's first initiative. Last month, Ervin proposed legislation that would change the way county labor negotiations are sometimes resolved.

When the county and a union can't agree on a contract, a labor arbitrator chooses the package he thinks is best. Under current law, the arbitrator may consider a half-dozen factors, such as what other unions have agreed upon. But Ervin's bill would require the arbitrator to give priority to the county's ability to pay.

The arbitrator "must first determine the ability of the County to afford any short-term and long-term expenditures" needed, according to an amendment to Ervin's bill passed by a council committee Tuesday. The arbitrator must assume no reduction in current government services and no tax increase.

Renne said that such a change would "stack the deck" in favor of the county over its employees. He said that labor leaders want to believe Ervin is a "friend of labor," but "friends don't let friends drive off the road."

"My obligation is to my members, to protect their interests, and I will do that whether it upsets any of you or not," Renne said.

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