Montgomery County Council approves budget cuts, backs off on union clash

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 9:19 PM

The Montgomery County Council took a series of limited steps Tuesday to begin addressing a $300 million budget problem, including approving more than $30 million in midyear cuts and altering laws governing negotiations with public employee unions.

But the net effect of the council's tense mix of action and inaction Tuesday - including alternately tough and tentative votes and a procedural back flip under pressure from union leaders - was to send mixed messages about how officials will address even more intractable budget problems in coming months.

Some of the actions promise to be difficult for the individuals involved, including the elderly, who will be shut out of neighborhood senior programs, and a group of fire and rescue administrators the council voted to downsize. The administrators serve the county's volunteer fire and rescue departments.

But council members fell several million dollars short of cutting as much as County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed and argued about where they believed his proposals went too far. Leggett had said that he hoped the council might cut deeper than he did, which would help reduce the severity of fiscal challenges next year. The closest it came to that was a vote by council members Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, both at-large Democrats, to accept Leggett's $36.2 million "savings plan" as is.

That motion had little traction: Opponents said the council had the responsibility to weigh in with its own vision.

The result was a cut amounting to $32.3 million, which closely matched Leggett's suggestions but also included a series of puts and takes that reflected the council's priorities - and pain threshold. The council, for instance, agreed to cut some senior programs, but voted to preserve more then $23,000 to keep providing meals at three community centers. "It's just $23,000 in a $4.3 billion budget. We can afford to feed elderly people who have no other options," council President Valerie Ervin (D) said.

Ervin's push to close what she called "loopholes" in the laws covering bargaining with government unions ran into fierce opposition.

Gino Renne, head of the largest local government employees union, joined with his members and other union leaders in a successful effort to blunt some of the potential effects of Ervin's effort.

Her original proposal, made in November, had been given more teeth by comments from a Leggett administration official and a number of changes offered by county staff. The council's government operations committee, which includes Ervin (Silver Spring), Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) and Hans Riemer (D-At Large), had sent the amended, tougher version of the bill to the full council with a recommendation that their colleagues approve it.

But on Tuesday, Navarro said there had been a change of heart and that the committee, which she chairs, had reversed course.

"After further reflection," she said, "there has been a decision to actually support and forward to you the original bill without the particular amendment."

The procedural maneuver allowed for a face-saving escape from an increasingly nasty fight between council members and employee unions. The council unanimously approved Ervin's original bill Tuesday, a result Renne said he could live with.

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