Sunday, April 11, 2010

MCGEO President Gino Renne's Testimony on the County Budget

Following is the testimony of MCGEO President Gino Renne on the county budget. Note his statements about the relative impact of the County Executive's proposal on front-line workers and management.

Testimony of UFCW Local 1994 President Gino Renne To the Montgomery County Council

April 6, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished members of the County Council: On behalf of the 10,000 workers our union represents—employees of Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and others — we appreciate this opportunity to share the union’s views about the budget and the process of developing it.

I recall a phrase that was often used by the old folks in my Pittsburgh neighborhood as I was growing up. It was variously described as a blessing and a curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

Blessing or curse, these are interesting times.

I have been involved in this county, representing government workers for more than 33 years now, and these are perhaps the most interesting times I have ever experienced.

Over that time, our county has mushroomed from a much smaller and more easily managed jurisdiction to a very complex political organism that requires careful attention, innovation, creativity, thoughtful management, most of all — leadership.

In 1977, the County Executive’s budget was $500 million. Today, it is over $4 billion.

The average household income in Montgomery County in 1977 was second highest in the nation. The median income in Montgomery County was three times the national average.

Over the years, Montgomery County became accustomed to being in the lead. We were “first” or at the top in every metric that matters: The most affluent, the best schools, transportation, health, public safety and job growth.

Lately, however, we have slipped. Our county’s demographics have changed substantially. We lag behind many of our neighbors: Howard County in Maryland, Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington and Loudon County have all moved ahead of Montgomery County. One key measure — job growth — is particularly indicative. Last year, Fairfax County added 40,000 jobs; Montgomery added 7,000.

During the good times, Montgomery County developed some bad habits—including the development of a large, highly-compensated management contingent that adds very little to the quality or quantity of services for residents, taxpayers and voters.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, the current level of cuts proposes the elimination of 115 work years. Exactly 2.6 of those work years to be eliminated will come from the ranks of management.

Montgomery County’s demographics tend to reflect our wide range of education and income levels — from the pockets of prosperity in Potomac, Bethesda and Chevy Chase, to the less fortunate areas where poverty has taken root. The wages of county employees are a mirror of those demographics.

Comparing the union negotiated wages for rank and file workers in typical occupations with those of nearby jurisdictions — Anne Arundel, Arlington, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, the District, Fairfax, Howard and Prince George’s — Montgomery ranks about 10 percent above average.

However, using the same methodology and comparing the same jurisdictions, the managerial levels exceed the average by more than 59 percent — a deviation that warrants some explanation. And, when that management cohort is insulated from cuts, furloughs and reductions-in-force, we believe that the council has a responsibility to county residents to dig deeper for an explanation.

When any institution chooses to protect supervisory levels while slashing rank and file workers it begs the question: Who are those supervisors supervising? And, how does that actually “economize” the operation?

The situation is not unlike what we have seen in the nation at large. During my lifetime, California was always seen as the leading state: with the best schools, best government, and the most innovative approaches to problem solving. That’s not the California we see today. California in 2010 is a state caught in financial chaos and mired in inadequate leadership.

Hence, the slogan you see on many of the signs our members are carrying: “Don’t Californicate Montgomery County”.

Before the critics start blaming public employees for the problems of Montgomery County and California, let me stress that objective analysis of trends in public employment do not support the popular misconception that out-of-control wages and benefits for rank and file workers have pushed too many jurisdictions into near bankruptcy.

Public employees have always been the scapegoat for those who don’t like government — any government; and those who do their best to impede the work that government does.

The wages, benefits and working conditions that are established in collective bargaining between the union and the county are neither lavish nor stingy. They represent a middle class standard that protects the quality of life for workers who have a legitimate claim to the American dream.

Too often in these sessions, we find ourselves pointing fingers of blame for the immediate situation. But, finger pointing rarely produces solutions. Clearly, no one in this room can be held responsible for the morass of the U.S. economy; and no one in this room can be expected to resolve the crushing economic forces that generated the recession that lies at the root of our economic problems.

It’s clear that we cannot resolve this problem by using the tired old suggestions that have not worked in the past: raising taxes and cutting services. This is not a zero sum game—one where we are trying to get back to a place we’ve already been. You cannot cut your way to growth, and growth is what we need.

The ideal solution involves planning and investment, cultivation and nurturing. Most of all restoring prosperity requires a vision of cooperation and innovation.

We can whine about the unfair hand we’ve been dealt, but if we want solutions we must exercise the leadership roles that each of us sought when we put our names forward for election — yes, like you, I must stand for election.

We can accept the challenge to use this crisis as a crucible…an opportunity to change the way we think and do business. Your employees have accepted that challenge as evidenced by the unprecedented coalition that we have developed, bringing together bona fide business leaders, taxpayer advocates, community organizations and labor to develop a new vision for what we do and how we do it.

We may not be responsible for the problem, but we must be responsible for the solution.

We invite the county executive and the county council to engage with us and our coalition, not as adversaries, but as partners. We need to adopt structural changes that will enable Montgomery County to emerge on the other side of this crisis with a more efficient, cost effective county government that provides our citizens with the services that they rightfully expect and depend upon.

To quote a great former governor from the great state of Texas — Ann Richards: “Life is not fair, but government should be.” I propose that we dedicate ourselves to working together toward that objective.

Thank you.