It looked like a 1960s college protest: hundreds of angry people surging around official buildings, accusatory placards waving at television cameras and a heavy dosage of emotion and bitterness.
The scene yesterday was no college campus, however. In Rockville, the Montgomery County seat, and in Upper Marlboro, the center of government in Prince George's County, the protest was over money.
The Prince George's County Council and executive had actually managed to lower the property tax rate there by 15 cents. That was a pittance - "the lousiest thing I ever heard of" in the words of one protester - to citizens groups that had been pressuring in a highly organized fashion for a 32-cent reduction.
The Montgomery County Council was the target of more than 600 furious county employees yesterday after it voted Thursday for a cost of living increase far below what was expected and increased the health insurance contributions required of the employees.
The contrast between the protests in the two county seats was a perfect illustration of the dilemmas facing county governments throughout the area. In Rockville, the policemen, teachers, janitors and office workers who keep the county running, were asking for more.
In Upper Marlboro, the people who foot the bill were saying they can no longer pay for it.
"We're watching you . . . We're remembering," said a placard worn by an elderly demonstrator at Upper Marlboro. Most of the protesters there were elderly, members of the increasingly outspoken Neighborhoods Uniting Project, a coalition of community based improvement organizations guided by professional organizers.
The Prince George's County Council formally adopted a $414.3 million budget yesterday, which pleased County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. because it shifted some of the property tax burden to other types of taxes, such as a telephone tax, which county aides consider more equitable.
Many of the protestors complained that the reduction in the tax rate was not enough to offset the higher assessments they have been receiving as the value of their property has been steadily, and often dramatically, increasing.
"Want to be a Constant Donor," read another protest sign, "Be a P.G. Co. Property Owner."
There were some people happy with the county's budget, however, Toby Rich, president of the Prince George's County Educators Association, said it was "the first time I can recall where all the various units - the county executive, the School Board, the union and the Council - have all worked together in formulating a budget," he said.
Yesterday's session was marked by angry words and even catcalls from others, however. More than 300 persons organized by the Neighborhoods Uniting Project had come to Upper Marlboro Thursday for what they thought would be a final "straw vote" work session by the Council. That session was canceled, and only two Council members were there by the time the citizens arrived. They were still angry about it yesterday.
"They ducked it," said John Lindsay, president of the Riverdale Heights Civic Association. "They pulled a sneaky one by not being there. The citizens should have a voice after the straw vote . . . an opportunity to say 'we didn't want this, we wanted that . . .'"
Other citizen protestors accused the Council of holding secret sessions to deliberate on the budget. "There wasn't a secret session," said Councilman David Hartlove, his voice gradually fading from weariness. The only thing I know is honesty.
The NUP group, which was bused from all over the county, was well organized. Older women, black and white, sat down in front while the young NUP staffers roamed around making sure various senior representatives spoke to the press on the assessment and tax issues.
Florence Culver, a spokeswoman who gave a speech outlining the budget "victory" as she called it, said earlier that she didn't know enough about the budget to really comment on it to a reporter. "We just get a general idea of it. We don't do any of the research. The staff does that."
Many other persons in the audience were also unsure of the efforts the budget would produce. "We just came along because we're part of the group," one woman said. Culver with tax assessment because I live in an apartment, but I'm fighting for the people who need this."
The seven member Montgomery County Council retreated slightly from its decisions of Thursday under yesterday's barrage of protest.
The council voted to raise the cost-of-living increase from 4 per cent to 4.2 per cent and to reduce the health insurance payment from 29 per cent to 22 per cent of the total insurance cost.
Those actions were subject to final approval Monday.
Many of the county employees who rallied on the sun-drenched steps of the county office building in Rockville after the votes yesterday were still bitter at what one speaker called the "dirty tricks" the Council had played on them.
The county employees said they wanted a 6 per cent cost of living increase. Their bitterness also stemmed from the Council having not kept a pledge to meet with them at 4 p.m. to discuss their concerns.
James Mills, head of Montgomery County government employees organization, said, "(The Council) did not see fit to hear us before making their decision. That shows you what they think of us."
A coalition of 12 county employee groups had requested the 4 p.m. meeting with Council members late Thursday night. Council President John Menke agreed that the meeting was pre-empted by an emergency Council session that Menke called yesterday morning for 2 p.m.
The five speakers at the bried rally - Police Chief Robert J. DiGrazia among them - to a person said the Council's action was unsatisfactory and urged those listening to attend the Council's final bueget session Monday.
Most of the speakers pointedly remined the audience they could retaliate politically against the Council members in next year's election, and several dindirectly raised the prospect of a strike or some sort of job action.
"(The Council members) are attempting to rob us of a cost-of-living raise necessary for our mere survival in this nation's most affluent county," police officer Len Simpson said.
"We watch as our neighbors workig for the federal government and private industry receive cost-of-living raisess the far exceed ours," Simpson continued. "(The Council is) taking food from our mouths and shoes from our children's feet."
After several intervening speakers had urged the employees to meet among themselves and discuss whether they should take any action, Simpson again took the bullhorn to shout "Whatever you decide, if it feels good . . ." the employees roared back, "do it."
In changing the insurance payments, the Council was trying to resolve some of the inequities between the benefits employees of the different county agencies pay. The 12,000 school employees pay 29 per cent of their insurance cost while county government employees pay 13 per cent and Montgomery College employees pay 20 per cent.
Most of the $1.2 million the county would save by the changes was allocated Thursday to the school system. The Council voted yesterday, however, to take $568,000 of that amount and apply it to increasing the cost-of-living raise to the highest level believed possible without necessitating a property tax rise.
Thursday's actions would have meant that because of the increased insurance payments, the paycheck for the average county government employee would have increased only 2.6 per cent while school employees would have felt the effect of the full 4 per cent increase.
"They're trying to take (the 4 per cent increase) away from us and give it to the school employees." William Callahan, a warehouse worker for the county liquor control department said. "They make us pay more for (health) insurance, then give that money to the schools. It's just not fair. It stinks."
In a rare appearance before the Council, County Executive James P. Gleason said, "I think it's wrong to have a process that pits public servants against each other. I don't think taking their (county government employees) money away, which is the net effect of what you are doing, and giving it to the school board is the way to do it."
Gleason advocated decreasing the cmount school employees pay for their insurance to the level county government employees paid. The audience, some of whom carried signs accusing the Council of favoritism to the school system, responded with thunderous applause.
Also contributing to this story were Washington Post Staff Writer Louise, Reid and Washington Post special correspondent, Chris Schauble.