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.

The county's Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association, the political arm of the county's volunteer firefighting force, opposed the fee and petitioned to let voters decide at the polls Nov. 2.

The fee, which appeared as Question A on county ballots, was defeated by more than 21,000 votes - 148,654 to 126,800 - on Nov. 2, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. Montgomery County had 573,431 registered voters during the 2010 general election.

Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) of Silver Spring said she was approached at the polls on Election Day by voters who were concerned that uniformed county firefighters were lobbying in favor of the fee.

Navarro, who chairs the Government Operations Committee, which would probably discuss Andrews's bill, said she would support the measure if it clarified whether county employees could be assigned to campaign.

"How can you be campaigning while you're on the clock for the county?" Navarro asked.

Andrews said his legislation would probably regulate the use of county resources for campaign purposes. He criticized the county's decision to spend $11,838 on printed materials supporting the ambulance fee.

The county government produced 132,000 fliers the size of a standard sheet of paper ($10,710); 1,000 copies of a 12-by-18-inch poster ($311); 220 copies of 11-by-28-inch bus signs ($697); and 12 posters that were 24-by-36 inches ($120).

The county also spent $1,459 on 32 hours of overtime for three employees - an average of $15 per employee, per hour - to hang pro-fee banners on about a dozen county buildings, including libraries and police stations. The banners were paid for by a political action committee working to pass the fee.

"The cost of the campaign against Question A was $14 million," Lacefield said, referring to the amount of money expected to be generated annually by the fee. "That's the real cost."

The fee was expected to bring in $170 million during the next decade, Lacefield said.

"Essentially, Phil Andrews has helped cost the county $14 million" this year, he said. "Should we send him a bill?"

John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 1664, said he would wait to comment on Andrews's legislation until he has reviewed it.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park questioned why Andrews continues to press the issue even though his position prevailed in November.

"I think it's time for Mr. Andrews to learn to take 'yes' for an answer," Leventhal said.

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