IN THE first decade of this century, salaries for most public employees in Montgomery County nearly doubled, rising at almost triple the rate of inflation. That profligacy sent spending soaring and set the stage for brutal retrenchment when the recession hit. Contrite county officials, forced to roll back over-the-top benefits granted to powerful public-employee unions, said they had learned a lesson.
But had they? This year County Executive Isiah Leggett has signed contracts with police, firefighters and other employee unions with pay increases averaging 7 percent to 10 percent. The county council approved the contracts with little dissent, mindful that many county employees went without raises when the bottom fell out of the economy several years ago.
Montgomery has an excellent workforce that deserves to be well compensated. At the same time, as recent history demonstrates, it needs to tread carefully to make sure it can meet its commitments. That goes for the salaries of elected officials, too.
A citizens’ panel has just recommended a sharp pay raise for county council members: nearly 30 percent over the next four years, to $136,000. (The council president, chosen on a rotating basis each year by the members themselves, gets a 10 percent bonus.) Most of the increase, a 17 percent jump above the current $104,000, would take effect in December 2014, when a new council is seated following elections. Three annual increases linked to inflation would follow.
As the panel noted in its report, council members work pitiless hours overseeing a $4.8 billion budget in a complex locality of nearly a million people. But it is precisely because they oversee the budget, and are obligated to manage it sustainably, that they should trim the recommended pay raise. It’s too much, too fast. By approving it, the council would forfeit any standing to hold the line on future increases for the county’s 9,000 public employees.
For at least the past 20 years, salaries for Montgomery public employees have risen much faster than those of council members. Today, about 650 county workers make more than council members — as do some 2,000 teachers and administrators in the public schools.
That’s a jarring reflection of the county’s spendthrift habits of the past. A sharp pay raise for council members, while temporarily righting the imbalance, probably would fuel demands for further unaffordable increases for public employees. By granting itself hefty raises, the council would prepare the ground to repeat painful history.
Council members are entitled to raises. They would be wise to opt for gradual ones that do not undercut their ability to make tough decisions in a budget environment made all the more difficult by hard-nosed unions and cost-shifting by the state to localities.
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