Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Most Powerful Man You've Never Heard Of

Tim Firestine won’t kiss your baby. He won’t listen to you rant about your pet peeve for fifteen minutes just so he can ask you to put up his campaign sign on your lawn. He won’t watch you scarf down three burgers at Taste of Wheaton Day and ask how you keep the weight off. That’s because he’s not running for office. But make no mistake: Tim Firestine is the most powerful man you’ve never heard of.

Firestine is Montgomery County’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) – Ike Leggett’s right-hand man. He runs the county government on a day-to-day basis. While the County Executive steers the ship of state, Firestine snaps the whip over the guys at the oars. Fifty-two county department heads report directly to him. (How does he keep them all straight?) A polished bureaucrat who could easily pass as a Fortune 500 CEO, Firestine’s relaxed demeanor conceals an encyclopedic knowledge of local government and a willingness to get into details that most politicians detest. Smiling thinly, he says, “I know where all the agencies hide their money.”

Firestine spoke to our District 18 breakfast this morning. Most of us were still woozy from the prior night’s delegate candidate forum. The CAO, however, is never woozy and covered more in an hour than most of our speakers can cover in two. A veteran of 28 years in Montgomery County government, Firestine preaches results-based management. He puts it like this: “First we figure out what we want our departments to do. Second, we figure out how to measure those things. Third, we allocate our budgets accordingly. We try to focus on things that produce results.” County-Stat, a government accountability system scheduled for introduction next month, will be one mechanism for this kind of management.

But of course the big news right now is the budget. Montgomery County is facing a $400+ million budget deficit next year, a number that may grow if the state reduces its projected aid. Firestine, as a former Office of Management and Budget staffer and a long-time county Director of Finance, knows this better than anyone. He says, “There’s a gap every year. Everybody wants more, more, more. So we have to manage expectations.”

But isn’t this year different because of the huge size of the deficit? Don’t we need huge tax hikes or spending cuts? On taxes, the CAO states, “We don’t have a lot of places to go to increase taxes. Our income tax is maxed. There is the property tax, but the recordation tax has already been raised.” On spending, Firestine would like to look at vacant employee positions. “We should ask whether we need those positions. What if we don’t?” Optimistically, he wonders whether attrition might account for half the needed savings.

Some county officials blame our state legislators for not doing enough to protect our interests in Annapolis. Not Firestine. “We came out of the special session better than we would have in the past. Our delegation held together as best they can.” He pointed out that Montgomery County benefited by not having the state pass on liabilities associated with teachers retirement. He also cited the Governor’s institution of Geographic Cost of Education Index spending (which provides extra education aid in areas with higher cost of living) as a plus for the county. But he acknowledged, “There may be more hits from the state.”

One of our regulars exclaimed, “I got some money for you!” She advised Firestine to drop the ice rink in Downtown Silver Spring, citing its $10 million cost, and claimed that the existing turf would be a fine use for the space. But the wily CAO would not go there, replying that the ice rink plan included open space.

Another regular asked whether the county could institute its own gas tax to pay for transportation projects. Such a local gas tax would require permission from the state legislature. Firestine replied, “That just is not going to happen. The state is not going to give up its authority to raise the gas tax to a local government. I don’t think anything is going to happen on a local-option gas tax.” The CAO also pointed out that if the county paid for more of its own projects, the state could then move its money somewhere else. This is a fiendish bureaucratic game, but it rings true to this activist.

And then we asked him THE BIG QUESTION. How much money can be cut from the budget without asking the county’s employees to accept compensation increases that are less than called for in their contracts? Firestine said carefully, “Our agreements with our employees are contracts. Our tendency is to honor our labor contracts. And we have a county council that is very supportive of labor contracts. But if there is absolutely no choice, that is an option.”

Hmmm… now that sounds like a snap of the whip over the guys at the oars to me.