Employee benefits costing Montgomery County dearly

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 9:50 PM

To understand how employee benefits are sapping Montgomery County finances, consider the social worker and the firefighter.

A decade ago, a starting social worker was paid almost $37,000, and a firefighter made about $35,000. In 2001, it cost taxpayers $2,200 to cover the social worker's retirement plan, which is akin to a 401 (k). The county tab for the firefighter's more generous pension plan was $6,000.

This year, covering the social worker's retirement will cost Montgomery $5,000, an increase of 123 percent. But taxpayers will pay more then $22,000 annually for the firefighter's retirement - a jump of 273 percent, according to a new legislative analysis.

"You certainly can't compare the danger of their profession to the danger of our profession," said John Sparks, head of Montgomery's firefighters' union.

Unlike the social worker's retirement plan, which fluctuates with the market, the firefighter's pension is backfilled by taxpayers.

Still, both the social worker and the firefighter can count themselves lucky for having Montgomery County as their boss.

The county pays 52 cents in benefits for every $1 it pays in salaries, according to Montgomery's Office of Legislative Oversight, which unloaded what director Karen Orlansky called "a boatload of facts and figures" on the County Council, school board and leaders of employee unions Tuesday. The report was commissioned to provide a baseline of data, and later policy advice, about where officials might slash spending to help solve the wealthy county's budget problems. Officials called the work sobering.

"I think you're dressed appropriately, in terms of the color of the outfits," council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) told the assembled analysts, who were wearing black suits and other dark garb.

The legislative analysts provided what they said are rough equivalents, culled from last year's federal data, to help put Montgomery's 52-cent figure into perspective. Private industry spends 21 cents on benefits for every $1 in salary, according to their report. State and local governments spend 32 cents. On the civilian side of the federal government, the figure is 51 cents, though the feds have had the luxury - albeit short-term - of running huge deficits.

"Where is it written that if you have a government job, that entitles you to a better benefits package than the rest of society gets?" asked council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).

One place it has been written is in the thick budget books proposed and passed by successive groups of public officials in Montgomery. Spending increases in flush years have left costs that the county can no longer sustain.

"Over many years, there was an assumption of rising revenue every year, so long-term agreements were reached that we now find today we can no longer afford," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). It was done by the county, by the schools officials who set teacher salaries and benefits, and by the state, he said, adding that "all of us are in the same boat now."

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