Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Council Votes 6-2 to Preserve Labor Agreements (Updated)

Last Friday, Council Members Duchy Trachtenberg and Phil Andrews voted in the council’s Management and Fiscal Policy (MFP) Committee to recommend $40 million in “labor savings” or “employee participation,” alternative terms for under-funding the county’s collective bargaining agreements with its employees. Today, they sought support for their proposal from the full County Council. They found none.

Labor contracts were not the only budget item considered by the Council. They also discussed the nature of the proposed property tax hike. The MFP Committee recommended that the County Executive’s proposed rate and his proposed credit be cut. The effect of that structural change would be to channel the tax burden onto homeowners and away from commercial properties, including apartment buildings occupied by renters. That proposal was approved by the Council by a 7-1 vote, with Council Member Marc Elrich dissenting. Council Members Trachtenberg and Andrews also recommended lowering the amount by which the property tax would exceed the charter limit from $138 million (which was the County Executive’s proposal) to $118 million. Ms. Trachtenberg and Mr. Andrews were joined by Mike Knapp and Roger Berliner, but Valerie Ervin, Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen voted against it. And so the property tax reduction failed on a 4-4 vote. Interestingly, Ms. Floreen commented that she voted against the reduction because she wanted to see a larger one.

But the main action of the day concerned “labor savings.” The 300+ people who mobbed the room were not there to lobby for a $20 million reduction in a tax hike. The vast majority were public employees present to defend their livelihoods. And at least from the perspective of political theater, the County Council did not disappoint.

Former union organizer Valerie Ervin hurled the first thunderbolt. “We could fund this budget right now and not go into the COLAs [cost of living adjustments],” she said. “A lot of this other stuff is just subterfuge.”

George Leventhal objected to any hint of “subterfuge,” defending the county government’s record of clean government. But he agreed with Ms. Ervin on the COLAs, saying, “I don’t really appreciate the term ‘employee participation.’ That’s a euphemism for busting contracts.”

Phil Andrews would not back down. He looked the 300+ public employees in the eye and told them, “Employees need to do their part… It would be unfair to expect taxpayers to pay a tax increase to fully fund employee contracts that would be 8% next year.” He praised MFP Chairwoman Trachtenberg, who had joined with him in recommending labor savings, for her “intelligence, diligence and guts.”

Duchy Trachtenberg also stuck to her guns. “I have stood with labor on a number of issues,” she said, citing her support for living wage legislation and the SEIU’s organizing campaign at Montgomery College. “I represent a million residents. Most of them don’t have an opportunity to join a union and benefit from collective bargaining agreements… I don’t disrespect you, but I respect the unrepresented, the seniors, the disabled and the homeless.” She told the crowd, “I have been the object of a lot of vilification. It doesn’t do any good to attack another person on a policy difference.”

But the other Council Members did not seem convinced that reducing the COLAs was the only alternative. Council Member Marc Elrich brought up possible savings from the county’s annual PAYGO expenditure. PAYGO is a cash contribution made by the county towards capital projects, which are mostly financed by bonds. Council staff told Mr. Elrich that next year’s capital budget would be paid for by $330 million in bond issuances and $30 million in a cash PAYGO contribution. If the county did not make its cash contribution this year, it would not necessarily delay any capital projects which would be mostly covered by bonds. In fact, the unions recommended reducing PAYGO by $10 million last week, just one part of their suggested $67 million package of cuts and alternate revenues. Mr. Elrich’s idea received support from several other Council Members, though Ms. Trachtenberg opposed it.

And then Mr. Leventhal pointed out the real role played by the council in labor contract decisions. For non-schools government employees, the council does indeed set funding levels for contracts. But with regard to the public school system, the council only approves its budget as a whole. Contract funding is decided by the school board. Mr. Leventhal called Board of Education President (and former County Council candidate) Nancy Navarro to the witness table. He asked her whether the school system, if handed a budget cut by the council, would respond by cutting employee raises. She replied, “The board feels very strongly that its strategic investment is in the compensation of our employees.” And then she said that while she could not speak for the rest of the board, she personally would not vote to underfund contracts. Mr. Leventhal concluded that if the council cuts contracts for non-school employees but the school board preserved its employees’ pay, significant inequities in pay scales would result.

After Ms. Ervin recognized several exceptional county employees in the room – including one fire fighter who had heroically raced into a burning building to rescue victims inside – the County Council took its vote on the contracts. Ms. Trachtenberg and Mr. Andrews were the only Council Members on the short end of a 6-2 vote. While some of their colleagues defended their good faith, none were willing to break the county’s commitment to its employees.

But the issue is far from decided. In order to fund the contracts, the council must approve a property tax hike that exceeds the rate of inflation tomorrow. The county’s charter states that seven votes are necessary to do that. Both Mr. Andrews and Ms. Trachtenberg have publicly opposed breaking the limit, which would be sufficient to block it. One of them must budge. If they do not, there is no obvious alternative and catastrophe would result.

And so the lights will be on in the County Council building very, very late tonight.

Update: The Gazette and the Post have also covered the story.