Raises are pressure point in spending proposal
As a steward of Montgomery County’s $4 billion-plus budgets, County Executive Isiah Leggett has walked a tightrope in a temperamental economy that has bruised government services since the past decade.
The executive’s latest budget blueprint — which begins the process of reversing a few painful cuts from recent years — is interspersed with an outsized payroll increase as well as reasonable moves to build (or rebuild) services such as police officers for schools, more firefighters and expanded hours at libraries.
Leggett has put forward a populist budget: a fair appropriation for public schools and programs for the elderly and financially frail, whose household budgets and services also have been pinched by recession, more money for affordable-housing initiatives, the first significant raise for county workers in four years and modest increases, tied to inflation, in property taxes.
On the pay-and-benefits front, the county executive is moving boldly, but perhaps too aggressively, in a still-fragile economy.
Under a two-year agreement with one of the county’s largest unions, thousands of workers would see increases of 13.5 percent during the contract term. That’s a generous figure in an era of single-digit inflation increases.
While Leggett has had to deal with the indignation of rabble-rousing unions concerning frozen pay, furloughs and job eliminations (the work force is 10 percent smaller under his watch), the planned compensation “adjustments” will require scrutiny from the County Council during its public hearings and deliberations this spring.
The executive’s compromise with unions concerning pay allows the county, for now, to sidestep the roll-the-dice risks of fighting off a court challenge or arbitration about contract terms. This isn’t inchoate thinking; a veil of uncertainty almost always shrouds contract battles. Whether the increases are sustainable is another question.
Leggett makes a point that since fiscal 2008, his team’s decisions on the size of the government work force, pay and benefits have brought about an impressive-sounding $469 million in savings.
Measured against multibillion-dollar budgets, this budget artistry loses a bit of luster. Everyone has cut back. More impressive is Leggett’s coping with historic revenue shortfalls.
For schools, the executive’s budget recommends a funding level that covers the so-called Maintenance of Effort mandate. Montgomery’s public schools remain among the best in the nation and historically have been well treated by the executive and council. But with sustained funding must come measurements of efficiency and effectiveness, both from inside and outside the school system. Are these dollars making a difference in closing persistent gaps in education achievement across the demographic spectrum?
In the cover letter sent with his budget summary to the County Council, Leggett writes of the “shared sacrifice” made by taxpayers, employees and beneficiaries of county services throughout many years in a stagnant economy.
A typical family still needs to prepare for more sacrifices in Leggett’s fiscal 2014 budget, even one that’s 4 percent larger than this year’s. It’s estimated that a property tax bill would go up $6.67 a month (a charter amendment caps the amount of increase).
The executive’s suggestion for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the regional water and sewer authority, would tack on about $5 a month to a typical bill. When coupled with the prospect of higher state gasoline taxes and other essential-service fee increases under consideration in the state legislature, these higher rates add up.
At the same time, the budget thinking reflects potentially beneficial projections for tax collections and state and federal funding as well as an anticipated lift in the overall economy factors that have been elusive in the past and made budgeting anything but exact.
Leggett entered office after a period of wild growth in the county government and has had to wrestle with the fallout of spending largess that collided with a recession.
On balance, the county executive again this year has advanced a responsible budget that continues the discipline of having the county government live within its means.