Sunday, May 11, 2008


In a moment that defined their political careers, Montgomery County Council Members Duchy Trachtenberg, Phil Andrews and Valerie Ervin put the fate of the public employees’ cost of living adjustments on the table last Friday. Present to greet them were over 300 chanting, stomping, clapping and occasionally yelling union members.

Council Members Trachtenberg, Andrews and Ervin are members of the council’s Management and Fiscal Policy (MFP) Committee. The committee’s charge on Friday was to discuss the extent to which savings on the county’s labor costs should be applied to fix its $297 million budget deficit. “Labor savings” ultimately means funding less for personnel costs than is called for in the county’s collective bargaining agreements: a practice derisively labeled by the unions as “contract busting.”

A word about the union members in the pictures. Assembled by pugnacious MCGEO President Gino Renne in the nearby County Executive Office Building, they were in no mood for “contract busting” and marched across a rain-soaked street to confront their council overseers. Their radioactive yellow battle color is not intended to please the eye and it certainly does not. It is designed to attract attention. They certainly received plenty of it on Friday.

Council Member Trachtenberg, chairwoman of the MFP Committee, opened the meeting with new transfer and recordation tax receipt numbers for April. Transfer and recordation taxes depend on property sales and they have been devastated by the recent collapse in the county’s real estate and construction market. According to Ms. Trachtenberg, the county received $13 million in transfer and recordation taxes in April 2008, down from $18 million in April 2007. For the year to date, transfer and recordation taxes totaled $138 million, down from $180 million the year prior. “Taxpayers are reaching a breaking point,” declared Ms. Trachtenberg and that justified a 2% reduction in the unions’ negotiated COLAs.

Council Member Andrews agreed. Citing the fact that personnel costs accounted for 80% of the county’s budget, he told the ornery union members, “What’s fair is to ask everyone to help.” As he has for months, he criticized the unions’ agreements as “unaffordable” and stated flatly, “I would not have negotiated the contracts that came over to us.” Supporting Ms. Trachtenberg, he said, “I believe that the 2% COLA reduction is a fair way to go.”

Pictures cannot do justice to the unholy din created by the roaring public employees. Hundreds of police officers, bus drivers, librarians, deputy sheriffs, correctional officers and park and planning workers rose to their feet to challenge Council Members Trachtenberg and Andrews. “What are you giving back?” one cried. “We are the taxpayers!” another yelled. “You’re hitting us twice!” pointed out one employee who was also a county resident. Worker after worker decried simultaneous increases in fuel and food costs, cuts in county services and proposed cuts in COLAs as a squeeze on their standard of living from multiple sides.

And then Ms. Ervin took the mike. She is a 25-year veteran organizer and trainer in the labor movement and everyone knew what she would say. “I was a proud member of the UFCW union,” she announced to the crowd. “We do not have to balance this budget on the backs of working people.” She recounted a bookful of statistics on poverty and income inequality to the groans of the audience (some of which we will examine on this blog) and concluded with, “Montgomery County is affluent for only some people.” “I believe that cutting salaries will hurt our local economy,” she said, “and I will not support a 2% COLA reduction.” We present the crowd’s reaction below.

In the end, the MFP Committee did not recommend a 2% COLA reduction. Instead, Ms. Trachtenberg introduced a motion calling for $40 million in “labor savings” with the exact mechanism to be decided later by the rest of the County Council. Mr. Andrews concurred and Ms. Ervin ferociously dissented. Neither the council members nor the staff justified this particular number against a lesser or greater amount. No mention was made by anyone of the unions’ identification of $67 million in additional revenues and savings as reported on this blog. The Post and the Gazette also omitted that fact from their coverage.

So what will become of the committee’s proposal for “labor savings,” a euphemism for underfunding the contracts? There do not appear to be any other votes on the council for the MFP Committee’s proposal, especially considering the fact that the union contracts are affordable in the next fiscal year. Instead, a rough consensus is forming in favor of a slightly lower property tax increase than that proposed by the County Executive along with a carbon tax proposed by Council Member Nancy Floreen.

But even that plan involves breaking the county’s charter limit on property tax increases, which generally holds tax receipt gains to a level equaling the increase in the consumer price index. Seven of the eight County Council Members must vote to exceed that limit. Both Council Members Trachtenberg and Andrews oppose breaking the charter limit, enough to kill any property tax hike. Will either of them budge on that position, thus enabling the union contracts to be preserved? That is the big question. We will have an answer by Thursday.