Wednesday, May 14, 2008

‘Give us a break’

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‘‘Give us a break. The people in this county and the state have dealt with dramatic increases in college tuition, gas and utility increases, photo speed traps, additional types of taxes, increased property assessments ... What is most perplexing is that I can’t figure out where the money is going.”

‘‘We can barely get from place to place. Our property tax went up last year $2,300. Our children are doing without as we’ve been cut to the bone with gas, food and electricity hikes.”

That’s an abridged sampling of letters to the editor that appeared on these pages in recent days, the voices of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.

As the County Council nears the finish line in its budget deliberations, wrestling with difficult votes tomorrow and next week on a record spending plan, those voices mustn’t fall on deaf ears.

Two months after County Executive Isiah Leggett recommended a $4.3 billion budget, which includes a significant increase in property taxes and a pledge to honor terms of generous employee contracts, the eight voting members of the council are considering options for covering a budget shortfall and reining in spending.

So far, they’re leaning toward a different scheme for property taxes for lower and middle classes than Leggett’s suggestion; favoring additional taxes on energy consumption; and are delicately dancing around a suggestion to scale back cost-of-living raises. At the same time, the council has ignored Leggett’s suggestion for trimming $51 million from the request of the school system, which nonetheless would get about 4 percent more in the year ahead. (The council is awaiting updated economic forecasts today and those are expected to be bleak.)

In all the back-and-forth in public hearings on the budget, a few numbers and statistics stand out, plain and clear:

*Of Leggett’s nearly $162 million in proposed increases, $129 million is needed to cover increases in pay and benefits for thousands of employees.

*In 10 years, 2,200 jobs have been added in county government and 5,000 in public schools. The roster of county employees has grown 22 percent since 1999 while the population has increased nearly 12 percent.

*One report finds that the county’s rate of growth in compensation rose 30 percent between 2004 and 2007, nearly twice that in the private sector.

*Raises negotiated with six major unions range from 26 percent to 29 percent over three years, with the cost-of-living component accounting for 4 percent or 5 percent in the year ahead.

*Trimming 2 percentage points from cost-of-living increases negotiated in recent contracts would save $46 million, according to estimates.

The council must demand help from the unions, one of which produced a laundry list of suggested cuts — none would touch pay. One-time concessions on cost-of-living increases are needed, as is support for Leggett’s ideas to reduce the size of the workforce through retirement and attrition.

For many years, Councilman Philip M. Andrews has been among the few, lonely voices arguing that large pay increases handed to the unions can’t be sustained. The Democrat from Gaithersburg favors a 2 percent cut in cost-of-living adjustments and again will likely be the target of vindictive unions if he runs for re-election.

By trimming cost-of-living increases by a modest 2 percent, the council would not be balancing the budget on the back of employees, some of whom made threats at a council hearing on Friday that cuts would decimate morale.

On property taxes, the council must avoid intolerable increases. Some aspects of Leggett’s proposals for rate increases, coupled with tax credits, have more merit than a council committee proposal put forward last week that strives to give greater protection to renters should landlords pass along the increase. A tax-rate hike of at least a nickel is inevitable unless Draconian cuts are made in programs and services.

In the few remaining days before a budget is formally adopted, the council and its key unions must forge a compromise on pay and benefits, one that recognizes the previously negotiated increases are unrealistic in today’s precipitous economy. They must heed the plea from the citizens they represent and work for to ‘‘give us a break.”