Legislation would curb county spending on campaign issues

By Erin Cunningham
The Gazette
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:18 AM

Montgomery County officials say they spent $13,297 advocating for an ambulance fee, which voters rejected in November, but a council member who insists that figure is much too low wants to prevent such spending in the future.

The primary cost to the county of campaigning for the fee was in printed materials and overtime costs, according to county spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield.

County officials do not know how much public-employee time was spent working on behalf of the ambulance fee, he said. Even if that number was known, there would be no cost associated with the work, Lacefield added.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who opposed the fee, estimates the cost could be hundreds of thousands of dollars, primarily in employee time and lost productivity.

Andrews said he is drafting legislation that would curb future county spending on campaign issues.

The legislation, which Andrews expects to introduce within the next two months, would ban county employees from engaging in campaign activity during work hours. At issue is whether county firefighters and other employees should have been assigned to distribute pro-ambulance fee fliers during the campaign season or to work at polls on Election Day - all while on the clock.

Employees would be able to engage in political activity on their personal time under Andrews's proposal.

"It's arrogant and it's wrong for the executive branch to refuse to provide information about how many county employees were assigned to campaign for ambulance fees on the taxpayers' dime," Andrews said. "I believe they could calculate this down to the dollar."

Lacefield said such information does not exist.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) sought an ambulance fee last year to raise $14 million in fiscal 2011, and to help fill a $1 billion budget shortfall. The county has a $4.27 billion annual budget. The fee would have charged insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid $300 to $800 per ambulance ride in the county.

Leggett determined during the campaign season that it was appropriate for county employees to spend work time advocating for the fee, which had been approved by the County Council. His position was supported by the County Attorney Marc Hansen and Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D).

Montgomery County is one of the only Washington area jurisdictions without an ambulance fee.

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