For 17 years, Sedearia Wilson-Jackson has worked for Montgomery County. Her husband, Sean Jackson, has been with the county for 16 years.
So when Montgomery froze both of their pay and started taking more for benefits, it forced the couple to make tough decisions.
Do they send their son to the college of his choice, or just down the road to Montgomery College? Do they stay-cation or finally make that trip to the Bahamas? Do they work overtime or take a second job?
Montgomery County closed $2.7 billion in budget gaps since County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) took office in 2006, in part by implementing what the county called a series of employee cost savings.
From fiscal 2010 to 2013, a mix of pay freezes, benefit contributions increases, unpaid furlough days and layoffs saved the county an estimated $469 million.
But for about 8,800 county employees, each gave up an average of $30,000.
“I do not feel the county played fair with us, with our raises. We could have gotten something. But they balanced the budget on the backs of their employees,” Jackson said.
For the first time in three years, employees could see a pay increase. Leggett has recommended a 3.25 percent cost-of-living adjustment or general wage increase for most employees. For police, he has recommended a 2.1 percent increase and for fire and rescue service a 2.75 percent increase. For employees eligible for increment or step increases, Leggett has proposed those be paid at 3.5 percent.
For police and fire and rescue employees who did not receive increments due them in the past, Leggett is recommending the county pay those steps retroactively. Police will receive a 1.75 percent increment starting the first full pay periods of February 2014 and February 2015 while fire and rescue workers will receive a 3.5 percent increment the first full pay period in April 2014 and in June 2015.
For those eligible, Leggett also recommends paying longevity increases.
But the employees’ earlier sacrifices will keep each of them short about $10,000 annually.
Since 2010, county employees have not received cost-of-living increases. Since fiscal 2011, step increases have been frozen. And in that year, employees were required to take from three to eight unpaid furlough days.
Freezing employee pay saved the county $224 million, according to Leggett’s office. The furloughs saved $11 million.
The county also required employees to contribute more toward their retirement and health benefits, for a savings of $24 million.
Add it all together, and the county saved $259 million between 2010 and 2013.
Divide that total by the county’s work force and county spokesman Patrick Lacefield said each employee sacrificed $30,000 in pay and benefits during the past four years.
But police and firefighters could have lost even more, according to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 and the International Association of Fire Fighters local 1664.
A police officer with five years of service lost $43,355 during those four years, the FOP said in an email.
A eight-year veteran with the department lost $49,124 while only those with 18 years with the county lost $30,389, according to the union.
IAFF President John Sparks said an entry-level firefighter who started in 2010 would have lost $29,158 during those four years, but a firefighter with 15 years lost $44,613. The average loss among firefighters was $35,827, he said.
“The county has saved hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of employees,” Sparks said. “Now I think they recognize they can’t keep doing it. Work force morale is at the lowest it’s ever been.”
However, the county will continue to save because of employee sacrifices — as much as an estimated $96 million more in annual savings going forward, Lacefield said.
For each employee, those future saving equates to $10,000 of annual pay sacrificed going forward.
On top of what employees sacrificed are the 1,254 positions — about 10 percent of the county’s pre-recession work force — that were eliminated. Cutting those jobs saved the county $210 million plus $60 million annually going forward.
“These numbers show all of the pain we’ve extracted to close budget gaps,” Lacefield said.
Leggett has said repeatedly the annually increasing budgets — some as high as 14 percent in one year — of his predecessor Douglas Duncan were not sustainable.
Together Leggett and the County Council reset the county’s finances, Lacefield said putting it into a position to give its employees a bump in pay this year.
Lacefield said these proposed pay raises will cost the county about $31.4 million in fiscal 2014, an increase of about $16 million from 2013 when instead of pay increases, Montgomery gave employees a lump-sum $2,000. The pay raises also would make a $16 million dent in the county’s ongoing savings from the pay freezes.
Numbers from the county council staff, however, show the raises costing the county $32.77 million in fiscal 2014.
For the employees who sacrificed $30,000 for the county’s fiscal health, the damage already has been done.
For the Jacksons, of Silver Spring, their family of four has yet to see the Bahamas. Their son was unable to attend his four-year college of choice in Florida but rather spent two-and-a-half years at Montgomery College.
Jackson took on as much overtime as he could while Wilson-Jackson took on a second job.
“Financially, it hit us doubly hard,” Sedearia Wilson-Jackson said.
As a police services assistant, Sedearia Wilson-Jackson’s pay is listed by the county at $58,155. As a Ride-On bus operator, Sean Jackson’s pay is listed at $51,864.
“I come from humble beginnings,” Sean Jackson said. “This was challenging because I saw light at the end of the tunnel, then all of the sudden the light got cut off.”
Sallie Haney, a school health room aide from Germantown who has worked for the county the past 10 years, said she has had to cut back on everything to make ends meet.
A single parent with two children, one who has special needs, Haney said she and her children have not taken a vacation since the county froze her pay four years ago.
“We can’t do anything,” she said. “I strictly pay the bills, and that’s it.”
Haney said she is considered part-time as she only works 10 months out of the year when school is in session.
Yet she receives county benefits, and Montgomery required employees to contribute more to their retirement and health plans.
Between the pay freeze and the benefit contribution bump, Haney said she was able to keep even less of her $26,000 county salary — shown on the county website at $30,911, the amount she would receive if she worked 12 months of the year.
“I now bring home almost exactly half of what I gross,” she said. “It’s really bad.”
Leggett did not shy away from the difficulty of his decision, saying the most painful was eliminating jobs, but he worked to make the sacrifice of resetting the county’s finances a shared one.
“It was tough decision under the circumstances,” he said. “But I think it was the right decision.”
Employees sacrificed to put the county on more solid fiscal footing, and the county is now far better for it, Leggett said.