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Congress’ budget moves could mean more furloughs

Montgomery County government employees who have had little to cheer about on payday could see bigger paychecks this year.

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s office and public employee unions have approved contracts that contain cost-of-living increases, step increases and a bump in the longevity step offered long-time employees.

Few can say county employees don’t deserve a raise. They’ve received no COLAs for four years. They’ve faced furlough days. Their ranks have been depleted.

These raises are expected to cost about $20 million, and the real test comes next month when Leggett submits his spending plan for fiscal 2014. But even if his budget can accommodate the raises without a tax increase or significant cuts in services, the move is questionable.

Taxpayers, who are anxious about their families’ finances, would agree. For every positive economic development — an advancing stock market or a downward tick in unemployment — a negative one follows — the housing market softens, the Dow dips, consumer confidence slips and federal budget cuts loom.

It’s looking unlikely that Congress will wise up to the dangers of sequestration and prevent massive federal budget cuts. Leggett said last week the county could lose $500,000 a day if the cuts go through, and federal employees lose their jobs. One could imagine county employees facing another round of furloughs, only they’d have to give up more days to fill a larger hole in the budget created by their raises.

For a handful of reasons, the county might have felt cornered into providing pay raises.

Other nearby jurisdictions are increasing employee pay. And county governments — specifically Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties — recently have lost in arbitration and in court over their failure to increase salaries.

And jaded political watchers might think the contracts answer the will-he-or-won’t-he question on Leggett’s third term. That’s looking at Leggett through the prism of challenger Doug Duncan, who had purchased labor peace through generous contracts during his time in the county executive’s suite.

Leggett might seek a third term, but Question B means these contracts won’t buy many votes. Last year’s ballot question scaled back the police officers union’s bargaining rights. That’s the kind of government management move likely to sour support among labor-minded voters.

Speaking of the upcoming election, Councilman Phil Andrews — who is waging a county executive campaign — blasted the contract, calling it “excessive, unsustainable and irresponsible.” Andrews is the closest thing to a fiscal conservative serving on the County Council right now ,and that’s the kind of sour-tasting medicine he’s been delivering for years.

With the fiscal picture still cloudy, the county’s leaders have to double down and seriously ask whether big raises are affordable.