Saturday, May 31, 2008

What Might Have Been...

When Senator Patrick J. Hogan (D-39) of Montgomery County stepped down last year, he changed history. We are only now beginning to realize the magnitude of that decision.

Senator Hogan was Vice-Chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. Senator Ulysses Currie (D-25) of Prince George's County was the Chairman, so Hogan was next in line. When Hogan retired, a prominent Rockville politician told me, "It's devastating to lose P.J. We are going to get screwed." Shortly afterwards, the Special Session passed an income tax hike that relied disproportionately on revenue from Montgomery County because of its progressive nature. An even greater targeting of Montgomery County taxpayers was the reason much of the county's state delegation fought bitterly, and ultimately unsuccessfully, against the millionaire tax.

Hogan's departure resulted in the promotion of Senator Edward Kasemeyer (D-12) to the Vice Chairman position. Longtime Montgomery County Delegate Marilyn Goldwater (D-16) left around the same time, prompting this observation from the Gazette:

The leadership changes leave Montgomery, the state’s largest jurisdiction, with a single committee chairman in each chamber and House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville. Baltimore city boasts three chairmen, three vice chairmen and the majority whips in each chamber; Prince George’s County has three chairmen and one vice chairman in the General Assembly.
Montgomery County's committee chairs include the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (held by District 16 Senator Brian Frosh) and the House Ways and Means Committee (held by District 20 Delegate Sheila Hixson).

Senator Currie appears to be in some trouble. If he falls, Kasemeyer, who represents Baltimore and Howard Counties, will be in line to become the next Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman. That is good news for a Governor who is targeting swing areas in Baltimore County for his re-election. But it is bad news for Montgomery County. With a Chairman Hogan, Montgomery would have been better able to resist humiliations like this. Instead, the county's politicians will be left to ponder what might have been.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Better Way to Measure Traffic, Part Three

In Part Two, we listed four corridors with high volumes and low speeds. Today, we list four corridors with modest volumes and low speeds. While these corridors perform differently than the ones we listed yesterday, they may be even more clogged. Several of these roadways contain chains of gridlocked intersections that collectively cut down on auto movement.

The Worst Modest Volume, Low Speed Corridors

These corridors have very low speeds but do not have critical lane volumes that exceed policy area standards (at least not in the evening). The relatively modest volumes combined with the crawling speeds suggest that cars have an extremely difficult time squeezing through these gridlocked areas.

Colesville Road, 16th Street to Spring Street

Test Run #1
5/23/07 at 5:06 PM, Eastbound
0.77 Miles in 7.87 Minutes, 5.9 MPH

Test Run #2
5/23/07 at 7:34 PM, Eastbound
0.66 Miles in 5.57 Minutes, 7.1 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Colesville at East-West Highway: 1061 (Recorded on 6/2/04)
Colesville at Georgia: 1049 (Recorded on 9/26/06)
Colesville at Spring: 1248 (Recorded on 9/20/06)

Notes: This corridor is located in Downtown Silver Spring and runs past the Metro Station.

Frederick Road, Chestnut Street to Montgomery Village Avenue

Test Run #1
5/15/07 at 5:47 PM, Northbound
0.54 Miles in 4.97 Minutes, 6.5 MPH

Test Run #2
5/15/07 at 6:15 PM, Northbound
0.67 Miles in 5.85 Minutes, 7.1 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Frederick at Chestnut: 1204 (Recorded on 9/30/04)
Frederick at Odenhal: 1372 (Recorded on 11/10/04)
Frederick at Perry: 974 (Recorded on 3/10/04)
Frederick at Montgomery Village: 1427 (Recorded on 5/2/05)
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1450

Notes: This corridor runs near Lake Forest Mall and the I-270/Quince Orchard Road interchange.

Georgia Avenue, Prince Phillip Drive to Olney-Sandy Spring Road

Test Run
5/30/07 at 5:32 PM, Northbound
0.97 Miles in 5.17 Minutes, 11.3 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Georgia at Prince Phillip: 1145 (Recorded on 3/6/07)
Georgia at King William: 1095 (Recorded on 12/9/03)
Georgia at Olney-Sandy Spring: 1251 (Recorded on 3/15/07)
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1450

Notes: This corridor is just south of the Olney commercial district.

Georgia Avenue, Spring Street to Dennis Avenue

Test Run #1
6/4/07 at 5:15 PM, Northbound
0.46 Miles in 8.32 Minutes, 3.3 MPH

Test Run #2
6/4/07 at 5:15 PM, Northbound
1.46 Miles in 6.67 Minutes, 13.1 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Georgia at Spring: 1080 (Recorded on 11/17/05)
Georgia at Seminary: 1374 (Recorded on 4/7/05)
Georgia at Beltway: 1206 (Recorded on 11/20/03)
Georgia at Forest Glen: 1377 (Recorded on 6/6/07)
Georgia at Dennis: 1437 (Recorded on 6/7/07)
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1600

Notes: This corridor includes Montgomery Hills, the Beltway/Georgia Avenue interchange and the Intersection of Death. The Planning Department’s staff witnesses this congestion every day because their headquarters is at the southern tip of the corridor. A redesign of Georgia Avenue between 16th Street and Forest Glen Road is the top county priority for state projects requiring planning. The state announced it would undertake planning for this corridor back in January.

These four corridors, as well as the four listed yesterday, present the most urgent and intractable traffic problems in Montgomery County. The Planning Department should be able to dig into these corridors in great detail if they adopt the measurement system that I recommended in Part One. Some of the questions that need to be answered are:

1. Is some level of congestion actually desirable? Heavily populated down-county areas like Bethesda and Silver Spring have large numbers of pedestrians. Policies that speed cars may cause increases in pedestrian accidents.

2. Are there any transit improvements that could ease the congestion? Five of the eight corridors (Wisconsin, Rockville Pike, Colesville, and two on Georgia) are already near Metro stations. Could some of the traffic be headed to areas beyond Metro’s reach? If it is, Metro extensions (including bus rapid transit) may be warranted. US-29 would be a particularly good candidate.

3. What does this information mean for the Purple Line? Four of the eight corridors (Wisconsin, Connecticut, Colesville and Georgia) would be along or close to the route for the Purple Line. But the congestion measurements we have now apply to north-south traffic during evening rush. Would the Purple Line really be effective in alleviating north-south traffic? Perhaps a GPS test drive should be held on East-West Highway, which is the major auto connection between Bethesda and Silver Spring. If its congestion level matches that found in these eight bad corridors, that would strengthen the case for a direct transit connection.

Dear readers, never in the history of Maryland blogdom (or as far as I know, the mainstream media) has anyone suggested such a radical redesign of our traffic measurement system as I have. The Planning Department’s over-reliance on critical lane volumes without context has produced an incoherent, unreliable measurement system that is plagued with bad data. If we cannot correctly diagnose our problems, we will never arrive at a solution. Our current economic downturn will not last forever. When it ends, development will resume and traffic will get even worse. High gas prices will increase our cost of sitting in congestion. The time to re-evaluate, improve and plan for the inevitable is now.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

FBI Raids Home of Senator Ulysses Currie

The Post has details on the raid here. While we do not yet know the reasons for the raid, or even if Senator Currie is the target of of an investigation, this event is hugely significant. As Chairman of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, Currie is one of the most powerful politicians in Annapolis. He has also been a rumored potential successor to Senate President Mike Miller. If Currie falls, many chairs will be rearranged in the State House.

A Better Way to Measure Traffic, Part Two

In Part One, we discussed how GPS-based traffic measurement could work on a county-wide basis. The Planning Department has already done test drives on several corridors, plotting out distances, times and speeds in evening rush hour. When combined with critical lane volume (CLV) measurements, we can get a sense of which corridors are really the worst rush hour drives in Montgomery County.

In general, there are two types of problematic corridors. First, there are stretches of major roads characterized by high volumes and low speeds. Second, there are stretches characterized by modest volumes and low speeds. The modest-volume corridors are no less troubled than the high-volume corridors. In fact, some corridors may record lower volumes because chains of clogged intersections prevent large numbers of cars from getting through.

Using Planning’s preliminary data, we have identified four high-volume and four modest-volume corridors that all recorded low travel speeds. These are the true problem areas in Montgomery County, not the “most-congested intersection” list that is based on flawed, one-day CLV estimates.

Today, we report the worst high-volume corridors and tomorrow we report the worse modest-volume corridors. Unlike the Planning staff, we do not rank them; I am sure Wisconsin Avenue drivers are just as miserable as Georgia Avenue drivers like myself. For each corridor, we report the date, time and results for the test drives as well as any CLV measurements taken in its component intersections. We also report the policy area standard CLV. Any intersections with CLVs measured above their policy area standard are rated as “failing” by the Planning Department.

The Worst High Volume, Low Speed Corridors

The following four corridors are characterized by high auto volume (often exceeding allowable policy area standards) and low speeds. Lots of cars can and do get through these areas, but the experience is agonizing.

Connecticut Avenue, Bradley Lane to the Beltway

Test Run
6/4/07 at 6:20 PM, Northbound
2.01 Miles in 19.6 Minutes, 6.1 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Connecticut at Bradley: 1577 (Recorded on 3/17/04)
Connecticut at East-West Highway: 1829 (Recorded on 3/29/06), Exceeds Standard
Connecticut at Jones Bridge: 2017 (Recorded on 6/6/07), Exceeds Standard
Connecticut at Beltway: 1245 North, 1100 South (Recorded on 3/9-3/10/04)
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1600

Notes: This is the major commuter route between Chevy Chase, Kensington and Downtown D.C.

Georgia Avenue, Arcola Avenue to Randolph Road

Test Run
6/4/07 at 5:15 PM, Northbound
0.69 Miles in 8.03 Minutes, 5.2 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Georgia at Arcola: 1471 (Recorded on 2/23/06)
Georgia at Randolph: 1910 (Recorded on 2/23/06), Exceeds Standard
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1600

Notes: Georgia at Randolph had the second-highest AM CLV in the county. A grade-separated interchange at this intersection is the county’s top priority among state construction projects. The state announced it would fund the project in January 2008. The Glenmont Metro Station is just to the north.

Rockville Pike, Congressional Lane to Edmonston Drive

Test Run #1
6/7/07 at 5:42 PM, Northbound
0.69 Miles in 4.62 Minutes, 9.0 MPH

Test Run #2
6/7/07 at 6:02 PM, Northbound
0.46 Miles in 2.93 Minutes, 9.4 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Rockville Pike at Congressional: 1538 (Recorded on 6/3/04), Exceeds Standard
Rockville Pike at Edmonston: 1590 (Recorded on 10/13/04), Exceeds Standard
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1500

Notes: This corridor is just north of the Twinbrook Metro Station and is adjacent to the Woodmont Country Club.

Wisconsin Avenue, Battery Lane to Cedar Lane

Test Run
5/12/05 at 4:52 PM, Northbound
1.24 Miles in 11.0 Minutes, 6.8 MPH

PM Critical Lane Volumes
Wisconsin at Battery: 1745 (Recorded on 2/8/07)
Wisconsin at Jones Bridge: 1536 (Recorded on 12/22/05)
Wisconsin at Cedar: 1996 (Recorded on 9/7/06), Exceeds Standard
Policy Area CLV Standard: 1600 (1800 at Battery)

Notes: This corridor extends from the northern edge of Downtown Bethesda through the National Naval Medical Center and is just south of the Beltway interchange. The extremely-congested, high-volume traffic provides a strong justification for BRAC-related transportation work.

Tomorrow, we will look at corridors with modest Critical Lane Volumes and slow speeds.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Better Way to Measure Traffic, Part One

In our previous two posts, we outlined the county’s reliance on Critical Lane Volume (CLV) to measure traffic and identify problem intersections. We identified two problems with this system. First, the county’s measurement of CLV at each intersection only once every four years or so guaranteed the proliferation of fluky measurements. Second, CLV has different meanings under different circumstances. A low CLV could mean few cars or it could mean that few cars are able to move through an intersection due to excessive congestion.

There is a better way to measure traffic than this.

Any longitudinal data system must accomplish three things. First, the users must have reality-based data that actually measure what the users intend to measure. Second, there must be large numbers of observations to build an adequate sample size. Third, identical procedures must be applied over and over again in different conditions to isolate out their effects. The Planning Department’s current traffic measurement system has none of these characteristics.

But there is hope for something better that is buried deep within the planners’ own documents. In the appendix to the 2008 Highway Mobility Report, the staff has added something new: actual test runs by cars equipped with GPS devices on major corridors in rush hour. On pages 69-82, the staff shows the results of rush hour test drives on Wisconsin Avenue, Rockville Pike, Frederick Road, Georgia Avenue, Norbeck Road, Colesville Road, Columbia Pike, Connecticut Avenue, Clopper Road and Great Seneca Highway. Yes, these drives were only taken on one day each in May 2005, May 2007 or June 2007. But the results are very informative – you can actually see which intersections cause low speeds, and which stretches of these corridors have free flow.

Here is the kind of simulation that reflects reality. People do not drive through problem intersections once every four years, as the CLVs measure. They drive through long, clogged corridors every day, often during rush hour. The challenge is how to collect more of this data so it is not subject to outlier results determined by bad weather, accidents or other unusual conditions.

The solution is to draw on the hundreds of thousands of real live drivers who navigate this county every day. The Planning Department should offer county residents temporary GPS units for their cars in return for a payment of $100 per month. (That is the equivalent of one to two weeks of free gas!) These units would record all driving information and store them in internal memory for download upon return to the staff. Planning could rotate the units among different residents, perhaps 50-100 different people every month. After one year, Planning would have an unrivaled database of tens of thousands of actual drives under every condition imaginable. Planning would be able to judge the performance of any major roadway in the county under any weather condition, on any day, at any time of the day or night. Additionally, matching this traffic data with the police department’s online traffic accident database would enable planners to see the impact of auto collisions on roadway performance for every major route in the county.

How much would all of this cost? GPS units rent for as little as $5 per day and Planning could negotiate a better deal for lots of them. If Planning allocated them to 50 different residents each month and paid them $100 per month, the total rental and payment cost would be $151,250 per year. If Planning allocated them to 100 residents, the cost would be $302,500. Add on the cost of one full-time employee to monitor the program and the cost would be roughly $300,000 to $450,000 per year. The Planning Department’s total budget is approximately $19 million and it is currently suffering from cuts.

But Planning does not necessarily have to request lots of extra money. Why not pay for this, at least in part, by cutting back on CLV measurement? As we have seen, critical lane volume estimates taken in isolation do not by themselves provide reliable measurements of traffic. Do we really need 422 fluky, seldom-updated CLVs, many of which are taken at tertiary intersections with low volume? Why not reduce the number of intersections measured by CLVs and use the money for reality-based GPS measures instead?

Until the Planning Department moves to this sort of system, its existing test drive data provides a tantalizing peek at how a real traffic measurement system could work. In Part Two, we will begin looking at some of the new data Planning has already gathered.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Defining Deviancy Down at the Intersection of Death, Part Two

In Part One, we described how Montgomery County’s Planning Department relies on Critical Lane Volume (CLV) to estimate congestion at intersections across the county. Any statistical system that relies on just one measure, taken very infrequently, with little collaborating information is prone to fluky data. And that has happened at the Georgia Avenue-Forest Glen Road intersection, lovingly referred to by its neighbors as the Intersection of Death.

According to the Planning Department, this intersection went from being the most congested in the county to falling below the county’s allowable congestion standard for its policy area. Why? Because its morning CLV declined by 26% between surveys taken on 8/28/03 and 6/6/07. They would like us to believe that one-quarter of our traffic congestion has magically disappeared even though there have been no major engineering changes at the intersection. Similarly, only four of the ten most-congested intersections reported in 2006 have returned to the current 2008 list. Have the six intersections that fell off the list been “fixed,” surpassed by others that have become worse or simply fallen victim to bad CLV measurements?

While the Gazette covered our objections to traffic measurement at Georgia and Forest Glen, they spent a bit more time discussing the intersection’s infamous nickname than exploring the underlying data issues. I presented the following case study of the intersection to the Planning Board two weeks ago. Just looking at this one intersection calls into question the statistical validity of how traffic is measured in this county.


Testimony of Adam Pagnucco
Montgomery County Planning Board, 5/15/08
Item 8: Highway Mobility Report 2008

Good morning. My name is Adam Pagnucco. I am Chairman of the Forest Estates Community Association's Crossing Georgia Committee as well as my civic association's incoming county government liaison. Today I offer my observations on the planning staff's new Critical Lane Volume (CLV) estimates for the Georgia Avenue-Forest Glen Road intersection.

In the 2006 Highway Mobility Report, the Georgia-Forest Glen intersection was ranked as the most congested in the county with an AM CLV of 2106 and a PM CLV of 1643. Those counts were taken on 8/28/03. No one in the surrounding area was surprised. What was surprising were the new CLV counts taken on 6/6/07: an AM CLV of 1553 and a PM CLV of 1377. If those counts are to be believed, then congestion has decreased at this intersection by 26% in the morning and 16% in the evening in just four years.

Now let's remember the location of Georgia at Forest Glen. It is adjacent to the Forest Glen Metro station, one block away from the Beltway interchange and three blocks away from Holy Cross Hospital, the second-biggest hospital in the state. Any car coming from the north to the Beltway must pass through it. Most vehicles heading to Holy Cross, and all of them coming from the Beltway, must pass through it. And hundreds of pedestrians cross the street every day to use Metro. No other intersection in the county, and possibly the state, has this combination of characteristics.

The principal change in recent traffic conditions around the intersection was the 2005 expansion of Holy Cross Hospital. That expansion, the biggest in the hospital's history, added 210,000 square feet of new space to the facility. The hospital reports that it had 128,591 visitors in 2003 and 157,573 visitors in 2007, a 23% increase after the expansion was finished. But now the hospital claims that it is bursting at the seams and it intends to expand again. Its plan calls for a new parking garage that would hold 500-700 more cars, which the hospital says it needs because cars are stacking up in its existing garage. Given the phenomenal increases in patient visits and the hospital's need for another expansion so soon after its last one, how can anyone believe that traffic congestion at Georgia and Forest Glen has really declined by double digits in just four years?

But there is more. In 1995, the planning staff estimated CLV at Georgia and Forest Glen at 1511 in the morning and 1530 in the afternoon. If the 2007 CLV is to be believed, then current traffic congestion is only 3% worse in the morning and is actually 10% less in the evening than it was in 1995. That's right, we are told that evening rush has actually improved by 10% over the last 12 years. Considering the dramatic redevelopment of Downtown Silver Spring and the residential construction upcounty in that period of time, that is extremely difficult to believe.

Last December, I showed you our video of conditions at the intersection. Remember the sight of cars stacked up towards Wheaton as far as the eye can see? Remember the constant illegal left turns? Remember how the pedestrians had to maneuver past cars stopped in the crosswalk? Of course you remember and there is no need to show you that chaos again. As I recall, that video provoked quite a reaction in this room. Many things were said at the time, but I do not remember anyone saying, "Hmmm… now that intersection has great traffic flow!"

Perhaps the issue here is how CLVs are used for purposes of analysis. Critical Lane Volume is after all a volume measure. As the number of cars proceeding through an intersection goes up, the CLV goes up. Now imagine a perfectly gridlocked intersection. No cars can move. What would its CLV be? Exactly zero. After all, no cars would be able to get through. Is it possible that the Georgia-Forest Glen intersection's declining CLV indicates more congestion and not less?

Members of the Planning Board, it is highly unlikely that you will find anyone in my neighborhood who believes that the biggest expansion in the history of the state's second-biggest hospital has led to less traffic congestion over the last four years. It is equally unlikely that you will find anyone who believes that afternoon traffic flow on Georgia Avenue has actually improved since the mid-1990's. I hope that you will ask your staff to explain how their data contradicts the facts I have cited today along with plain common sense. I for one would like to hear their answer.


Tomorrow, we will show you a better way to measure traffic.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Defining Deviancy Down at the Intersection of Death, Part One

Imagine if we measured the American economy by estimating Gross Domestic Product once every four years. Forget about measuring other things like employment, unemployment and inflation. And forget about taking monthly or quarterly measurements.

“That’s ridiculous!” you would yell. “How would we understand the different trends in the components of the economy? How would we track the ups and downs? How would we get a complete picture of what’s going on?”

And you’d be right. But guess what: that is how we measure traffic in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County’s Planning Department measures traffic by calculating Critical Lane Volume (CLV) at each of 422 intersections in the county. CLV is the maximum hourly sum of conflicting auto movements, both through traffic and turns, proceeding through an intersection. (You can see how the measurement is constructed on page 6-26 of the 2006 Edition of the Mass Highway Manual.) CLV is dependent on volume. An intersection without cars would have a CLV of zero. As traffic picks up, CLV rises. But in a perfectly gridlocked intersection, no cars would be able to move and CLV would go back down to zero.

The Planning Department measures CLVs at each intersection by sending out traffic surveyors to count cars in both the morning and evening rush. But since Planning has limited resources, the surveyors can only appear at each of the intersections every four years or so. What if the weather is bad? What if there’s an accident nearby? Too bad, the survey results are in. Whatever happened on that one day is assumed to be the case on every day for at least the next four years.

Some of these measurement days are a bit unusual. Of the 422 reported CLVs in the 2008 Highway Mobility Report, 22 were taken in December, 23 were taken in January, 30 were taken in February and 3 were taken in August. Are these representative months of the year for driving conditions? Also, 29 of the CLVs were taken in 2003, 14 were taken in 2002 and 6 were taken in 2001. Can these measurements really be compared to estimates made in 2006 and 2007?

Moreover, the Planning Department assumes that a high CLV means high congestion. In fact, a high CLV means an intersection is carrying a lot of traffic. Remember – it rises with volume. An extremely congested intersection is one where it takes a long time to get through. In that case, the CLV may actually be quite low. How about measuring average delay times or average speeds? The Planning Department reports average speeds in travel runs taken on MD-355, Georgia Avenue, US-29, Norbeck Road, Connecticut Avenue, Clopper Road and Great Seneca Highway in 2005 and 2007, but those runs were one-day spot-checks covering only a fraction of the county’s intersections. Nevertheless, these travel runs provided valuable data and we will cover them in more detail later this week.

So why should you care whether Planning measures traffic badly? For one thing, an intersection’s CLV plays a role in determining whether developers building nearby will have to pay for traffic mitigation measures. If your CLV was measured on a day in which traffic was abnormally low, it might fall below the allowable traffic standard in that policy area. That would make it easier for a developer to escape responsibility for mitigating the effects of any new traffic generated by additional construction.

In Part Two, we’ll look at how the county’s faulty traffic measures have played out at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Forest Glen Road, also known as the Intersection of Death.

Traffic Week on Maryland Politics Watch

Dear readers, I am going to tell you something you already know: traffic congestion has reached catastrophic levels in Montgomery County. We measure it badly. We do not plan around it very well. But we can do better.

In a special five-part series, MPW offers an unprecedented look at our county's traffic measurement system. Today and tomorrow, we look at how we currently measure traffic and why we come up short. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we propose an alternative measurement system and preview its results. Our recommendations are radical. They are sure to be resisted by the county's Planning Department. But radical problems demand radical solutions. Our plight is truly dire. Let the timid flee, let the entrenched bureaucracy fossilize and let the naysayers be bound and gagged! None of them will be spared from Traffic Week on Maryland Politics Watch.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Montgomery County Planning Department Announces Cuts

For those who doubt that the County Council mandated actual cuts in its recently passed budget, the Montgomery County Planning Department is providing a sobering rebuttal. In a recent press release that we are reproducing below, Planning detailed the activities it will have to scale back to accommodate a 3% cut in its budget.

The Planning Department's work is vital for shaping the future of the county. They have an excellent, professional staff that struggles to keep up with the work load generated by servicing a county of nearly a million residents. If this year's cuts are followed by more in the future, their ability to update master plans, recommend traffic mitigation measures and assess the impacts of new developments will be severely impaired.

May 23, 2008

With Fewer Funds in 09, Montgomery County Planning Department Will Cut Traffic Relief Studies, Environmental Protection Analyses, Other Programs

SILVER SPRING, MD –The fiscal year 2009 budget approved yesterday by the Montgomery County Council includes $18.9 million for the Montgomery Planning Department, approximately a 3 percent cut from the previous year when factoring in mandatory spending increases.

Facing fewer funds, the Planning Board during budget discussions with the County Council identified services and programs that will be cut starting July 1.

On that list is the county’s oldest master plan – Westbard, on the western edge of the growing Bethesda area – that planners had targeted for an update. Master plans help guide development, set zoning, establish transportation improvements, lay out pedestrian routes and establish environmental protection measures. The Westbard community, surrounding River Road and Little Falls Parkway, will have to wait at least a year.

Another plan to be delayed is Battery Lane, a small neighborhood on Bethesda’s northern edge, where density, the expansion of the National Naval Medical Center and affordable housing are particularly important. The Council had asked the department to address those issues in a sector plan.

Last fall, the Council approved the 2007 Growth Policy, a biannual law that helps match transportation, schools and other public services to new development. At that time, the Council mandated aggressive new requirements for developers to mitigate traffic impacts in a number of innovative ways, including mass transit. That requires planners to even more carefully analyze every development plan for congestion relief strategies. With the funding cut, planners will not be able to fully carry out the Council’s intent, which they had hoped to achieve with additional transportation staff. Instead, for example, transportation planners might recommend that a developer fund construction of a new turning lane to alleviate traffic concerns posed by new growth rather than recommending more complex, long-term solutions like mass transit. In addition, planners will not be able to conduct much-needed analyses of countywide parking needs and traffic congestion.

Environmental protection initiatives also will be delayed or abandoned. A state-required plan to analyze the county’s long-term water supply and quality will be delayed by at least a year, while a proposal to study the county’s energy needs to recommend strategies to reduce demand and generate energy will be scrapped.

County residents used to visiting the department’s public information counter to learn about zoning, development plans and community master plans may find the counter closed. Planners expect to limit service hours given dwindling staff.

The fiscal shortfall mostly affects personnel, which makes up 90 percent of the Planning Department’s budget. The funding reduction forces the department to reduce staff. Unable to fund positions, the department will freeze vacancies resulting from retirements and resignations in hopes of shrinking the workforce and avoiding layoffs. In addition, for the first time in many years, the department will not offer paid summer internships to college students.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is the Washington Post Credible on Labor Issues?

Last Sunday, a Washington Post editorial slammed Montgomery County’s recently-passed budget as full of “sweetheart deals” for the county’s public employee unions. The week before, the Post ran an article by Ann Marimow titled “Union Influence Sways Budget Talks” during the middle of the County Council’s budget deliberations. And when the Post endorsed labor-backed Nancy Navarro during the District 4 County Council special election, they offered one caveat:

Ms. Navarro makes no bones about her alliance with labor, but we hope she will be sufficiently independent-minded to see that annual pay increases of 8 percent are simply not sustainable in the current budgetary environment.
These may not be disconnected events. In fact, they could be a product of the Washington Post’s long, contentious history with its own employees’ labor unions. Today we expose that history for our readers.

The Post’s labor difficulties date back at least to the early 1970s. At the time, two craft unions – the printers (who set type for the paper) and the pressmen (who ran the printing machines) – dominated the newspaper’s physical production. They occasionally abused their power with job actions, including a wildcat (unsanctioned) strike in 1973. The Post decided to fight back by introducing a new set of labor-saving photographic composition equipment, secretly training non-union workers to operate it in an Oklahoma City “scab school.” In 1975, the Post installed their new equipment in their headquarters, causing the printers and pressmen to walk out. But the pressmen sabotaged the new machines, set fire to one of them and viciously beat a manager on their way out, thus igniting a 139-day strike. Keeping the paper running with non-union labor, the Post eventually settled with the printers and permanently replaced the pressmen, crushing the latter union once and for all. Management’s experience with the violent, Luddite pressmen has shaped its labor philosophy ever since. (You can read accounts of this infamous strike here, here and here.)

Among the concessions secured by the Post from the rest of its now-intimidated unions was a two-tier wage scale. Current employees were given raises but the entry-level scale was not changed. As a result, new employees were often paid less than veterans even though they occupied the same positions and did the same work. Management made things worse by bumping up some new workers to veteran scale while not doing the same for others, a practice perceived by the workforce as reeking of favoritism. And the new, lower-paid workers were more likely to be minorities, adding a racial element to the tension.

In 1987, the Post declared a bargaining impasse with their reporters in the Newspaper Guild after 16 months of negotiation over this issue and others. Guild members retaliated with a “byline strike” during which they refused to allow their bylines to be used in their articles. The Post ignored the tactic and unilaterally imposed its terms on the union. The Newspaper Guild launched two more byline strikes in 2002 and was able to slightly improve the Post’s offer in that bargaining round.

The Post’s latest labor dispute involves its production workers, who are represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). When CWA’s contract expired in May 2003, the Post insisted on withdrawing from the union’s defined benefit pension plan. After five years of stalled bargaining and no pay increases, CWA struck back with a publicity campaign. The Post has also not renewed a labor agreement covering 26 electricians that expired last December.

Do the Post’s recurring labor problems affect its coverage? Ann Marimow’s article describing union influence over the county’s budget may have appeared during the critical final week of the County Council’s deliberations, but a few of her sources tell me that it was being prepared for at least two weeks prior. Some political actors in Rockville suspect that the timing of the article’s release (which is not controlled by Ms. Marimow) was deliberately designed to shape the outcome of the County Council’s budget decisions. That suspicion may not be justified but the very fact that it is regarded as credible at all is a big problem for the Post.

The Post’s tempestuous union history calls into question its impartiality on labor reporting, especially with regards to local labor issues. I am not an impartial source on labor myself. As a result, I frequently disclose to MPW readers: “The author is the Assistant to the General President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.” Our readers should consider that fact when they read my reporting and opinion. Perhaps the Washington Post should issue a disclosure statement after every one of its articles on labor issues such as, “The Post is a unionized employer and has been party to numerous labor disputes over the years.” MPW readers have a right to disclosure. So too do readers of the Washington Post.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Governor, Leave it Alone (Updated)

One month ago, I criticized Governor O’Malley for allocating $46.3 million for school construction in Montgomery County instead of the $55 million he promised our state delegation in the special session. After that, I was willing to let it lie. I know how tight the state budget is. But the Governor will just not let this go.

According to Maryland Moment’s John Wagner, the Governor went after Montgomery County school construction director Joe Lavorgna at a recent Board of Public Works meeting. The Governor claimed, correctly, that his administration had allocated $98 million for school construction in its first two years – much more than Governor Ehrlich’s $19.6 million. Wagner reports this exchange:

“Was there another county that got as much as $98 million?” O’Malley asked Joe Lavorgna, who oversees school construction in Montgomery County and attended the board’s meeting.

Lavorgna had been invited to the lectern by Franchot, a former Montgomery delegate, to explain the ramifications of receiving less funding than Montgomery officials had anticipated based on closed-door conversations during the special session. During that session, lawmakers took tough votes on tax increases and slot machines.

Lavorgna said that some local money would be used to close the shortfall in construction funding and that some projects could be pushed back.

O’Malley asked Lavorgna to give a copy of a chart showing a comparison to the Ehrlich years to his boss, Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. O’Malley said spoke recently with Weast by phone.

Lavorgna appeared taken aback by the exchange.

“I’m not here to complain about the state aid,” he said.
The Governor should have let this drop. Instead, he is putting this issue back in our faces. And he is badly misreading the political mood in this county.

1. Montgomery County residents have just suffered twin hits from state and county tax hikes. No one, not the richest nor the poorest, has escaped them. And on top of that, we are being reminded that our state aid is less than our legislators were promised.

2. The school construction fight exacerbates a long-held perception that the county does not get its fair due from the state. In last week’s apocalyptic budget sessions, County Council President Mike Knapp said from the dais that the state regarded Montgomery County as its “piggy bank.” None of his colleagues disagreed with him. More people are beginning to remark on the statistic that Montgomery gets only 15 cents of every dollar it pays in state taxes back in the form of direct state grants. The state average is 35 cents.

3. School construction is a big issue in this county. Frustration about over-crowded schools was a factor in electing several slow-growth County Council Members in 2006. Last year’s growth policy doubled development impact taxes in an effort to pay for more school capacity. And delays on school improvements have been a hot topic for many county parents over the last several months.

4. Opposition to disparate impacts on Montgomery County drove many of our state legislators to vote against the Governor’s proposed millionaire tax. Now that the Governor is resurrecting the school construction dispute, he is encouraging our delegation to act more parochially. This is unhealthy for his remaining agenda.

Politicians, of all people, are hardly surprised when other politicians break their promises. (It is always entertaining to hear one of them complain about how politicians in general can't be trusted!) The wise thing for the Governor to do would have been to let this lie and move on to other matters likely to attract our state legislators’ support. But instead he is throwing the school issue back at us and inviting discontent. Governor, for your own sake, leave it alone.

Update: The Baltimore Sun has more here. It seems the event was instigated by Comptroller Peter Franchot and that makes the Governor's reaction slightly more understandable. However, the Governor should have known better than to fall into the Comptroller's trap.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Income Inequality in Montgomery County

In Part One of our two-part series on income inequality, we reported that growing labor market inequality was fueling rising income disparities in Maryland. Today, we look at what is happening in Montgomery County.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey produces data at the metropolitan area level, including a series combining Montgomery and Frederick Counties. But small sample sizes at this geographic level handicap some of the individual occupational observations with unacceptably large standard errors. So we turned to a rich source of locality data that is less burdened with sample size issues: the decennial census.

The Census Bureau reports detailed demographic, economic and real estate data down to the census tract level (and even further) every ten years. We identified the five wealthiest neighborhoods and the five poorest neighborhoods, defined as census tracts and using per capita income, in Montgomery County in 2000. We then compared real per capita income, measured in 2007 dollars, in each of these census tracts between 1989 and 1999. We also looked up black and Hispanic population percentages for each census tract. In Potomac, we had to merge two census tracts to obtain comparable data for 1989 and 1999 because of changes in the area’s census tract definitions in the 1990s. We report our results below.

Measured by per capita income, the five wealthiest neighborhoods in Montgomery County are Chevy Chase Village, Potomac, the section of Bethesda west of its Central Business District, the Bethesda neighborhoods on either side of Democracy Boulevard and the Martin’s Addition and Rollingwood sections of Chevy Chase. The five poorest neighborhoods are Langley Park (separated into two census tracts), the section of Rockville east of the CSX tracks, the section of Wheaton west of Veirs Mill Road reaching up to Rockville, and the Oakview neighborhood in Silver Spring (southwest of the intersection of the Beltway and New Hampshire Avenue). On average, the percentage of black and Hispanic people living in the poorest neighborhoods is ten times their percentage in the richest neighborhoods.

Between 1989 and 1999, four of the five richest neighborhoods saw double-digit gains in real per capita income. Over the same period, every one of the poorest neighborhoods saw real losses. Together, the richest neighborhoods enjoyed a 15% real per capita income gain while the poorest neighborhoods suffered a 12% drop. The county as a whole saw a 4% real per capita income increase over this decade.

The 1990s was a relatively decent decade for America’s middle and working classes. Real wages ceased their two-decade drop and rose a little bit in many occupations. If Montgomery County’s poorest neighborhoods saw a double-digit real income drop in the 1990s, what is happening to them now?

Rising income inequality is a national, indeed a global, trend. Can Maryland’s state or county policymakers truly reverse it? Measures that might help thwart inequality include:

1. Encouraging unionization.
2. Funding public employee contracts, especially for the lowest-paid workers.
3. Investing in public education, the state university system, vocational training, apprenticeship programs and ESOL instruction.
4. Supporting minimum wage, living wage and prevailing wage laws as well as other worker protections (like Montgomery County’s domestic worker bill).
5. Cracking down on unscrupulous employers who cheat workers.

Will all of the above, if implemented with gusto, really make a difference? Possibly. But one thing is certain:

Every state legislator who voted to pass the regressive special session tax package and then opposed the millionaire tax effectively voted to make Maryland’s – and Montgomery County’s – income inequality worse.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Income Inequality in Maryland

Last month, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a study on income inequality in all 50 states. We reproduce their results for Maryland below and add some new research of our own in Part One of a two-part series.

The above analysis shows that income inequality has been growing steadily in Maryland since at least the 1980s, as it has been in the rest of the country. Why is that? There are many potential explanations, but as a union researcher, my natural inclination is to look at the labor market. What is happening to pay for Marylanders?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Survey program releases occupational employment and wage data from surveys of employers at the national, state and metropolitan area levels. The program has produced methodologically consistent longitudinal data going back to 1999. While some of the data is handicapped by small sample sizes and resulting large standard errors, many occupations report wage levels within 95% confidence intervals even at the state level.

We picked a list of 15 of the highest-paying occupations and 15 of the lowest-paying occupations in Maryland. The high-paying occupations all paid at least $35 per hour in 2007 dollars and the low-paying occupations paid $14 per hour or less. All of these occupations reported standard errors associated with their wage estimates of 6% or less. Together, these occupations accounted for 28% of all employment in the state in 2006 and they accounted for most of the employment at the upper and lower ends of the wage distribution.

For each occupation, we report employment and mean hourly earnings in 1999 and 2006, deflated with the CPI-W into 2007 dollars. We then compute weighted averages (by employment) for each occupational group and compare it to the state average. Below are our results.

As you can see, the 15 high-paying occupations saw a weighted average hourly earnings gain of 19.2% in real dollars. The 15 low-paying occupations saw a gain of just 0.4%, a statistically insignificant difference from zero. Six of these occupations saw real earnings losses. On average, Maryland workers saw a gain of 7.2% in real dollars, or about 1% per year over the period.

But the employment data is also instructive. The fifteen high-paying occupations saw a combined employment drop of 11%. The fifteen low-paying occupations saw employment grow by 18%. This change in employment patterns may be just as meaningful in driving labor market inequality as the change in the wage structure.

The above data applies to only 30 occupations over just one seven-year period. It cannot be considered as comprehensive as EPI’s work or a true peer-reviewed academic study. But the behavior of the upper and lower ends of Maryland’s occupational earnings distribution strongly suggests one source of the state’s growing income inequality.

Maryland’s labor market is rewarding a smaller and smaller number of people at the top with above-average real earnings gains. At the same time, it is punishing a larger and larger number of people at the bottom with no real earnings gains at all. And there is no reason to believe that this trend will end anytime soon.

In Part Two, we will use a very different methodology to examine income inequality in Montgomery County.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Local First Wheaton!

At yesterday’s rainy Taste of Wheaton event, the county’s newest and most unique business alliance was unveiled.

The seeds of this alliance were planted in last summer’s joint business/resident revolt against the county’s disastrous plan to extend parking meter hours. No one remembered the last time Wheaton’s businesses and its customers joined together to successfully change county policy. Everyone knew that if we did not build on that effort, the community spirit created by the revolt would fade.

So the rebel leaders met at Caramelo Bakery to plot what to do next. It was an unusual gathering. Attendees included a Cuban non-profit director, a Scottish pub owner, a Venezuelan baker, an Asian tea shop owner, a Salvadoran restaurant owner, an African-American County Council Member, a federal government economist and a trouble-making union hell-raiser from New Yawk. We decided to build a new business association, but not merely an extension of the Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce. The new group would focus on the small businesses that make Wheaton special, as well as their customers.

From left: Caramelo Bakery owner Freddy Real, Denise Isaac of Telemundo, Hall-of-Fame activist and business owner Marian Fryer and LEDC’s Daniel Parra announce the formation of the new association.

The alliance, eventually known as Local First Wheaton, would be open to small, local and independent businesses. The firms would cross-market each other’s products, do business among themselves, attempt to pool resources to get better deals on clean electric power and, most importantly, appeal to the residents of nearby neighborhoods to shop locally. When customers direct their shopping habits to nearby small businesses, they build job creation and investment in their local economy and minimize carbon emissions by driving less. Civic associations and even individuals would also be welcomed as associate members. Our model borrowed liberally from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a national organization which had created similar local business alliances in Denver, Chicago, Seattle, Cambridge, Buffalo and other cities. The Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC), a non-profit providing aid to small businesses, had already started a Local First group in Washington, DC. Now that LEDC had established a Wheaton office in the Gilchrist Center, its leaders, along with the businesses and residents who triumphed in the parking meter revolt, judged that now was the time to create Local First Wheaton.

From left: LEDC Executive Director Manny Hidalgo, District 18 State Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez and LEDC Maryland Business Director Daniel Parra.

Local First Wheaton has just launched its website and has signed up its first batch of members. Its logo and its membership directory will soon begin appearing all over Wheaton’s Central Business District. Soon after, we will market the alliance to the residents of nearby civic associations. Gasoline prices of $4 or more per gallon may be challenging to our members’ finances but they will provide an incentive for nearby customers to stay close to home. And once Local First Wheaton is established, we will export the model to other business districts in the Downcounty.

So come to Wheaton and check us out! Our members will make sure you’ll be back.

Friday, May 16, 2008

It’s Over – For Now

After a torturous few months, the Montgomery County Council finally reached a unanimous budget agreement today. But while the bleary-eyed Council Members are no doubt working their way through their liquor cabinets as we write this, the fiscal hangover will arrive all too soon.

Yesterday’s cliffhanger boiled down to this: three Council Members (Duchy Trachtenberg, Phil Andrews and Roger Berliner) wanted $20 million in “labor savings” gained by a 2-day furlough, while two Council Members (Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal) said they would not violate the public employees’ contracts. Marc Elrich expressed dissatisfaction with the structure of the property tax while Nancy Floreen argued for more cuts not connected to the labor agreements. The final solution announced this morning by Council President Mike Knapp contained elements of every one of these ideas. We present the text of his proposal to our readers:

Statement by Council President Mike Knapp

To enable the Council to reach common ground and complete action on the FY09 operating budget, I propose the following final steps in the budget process:

1. Reduce the amount of property tax proposed by the County Executive by $20 million.

2. Keep property tax rates at the current level and provide a credit to owner-occupied homes of $579.

3. Reduce expenditures and change resources as follows:

$8.0 million from County Government and MCPS, to be achieved by reducing employee/personnel costs and securing productivity improvements and increased efficiencies. Each will report back to the Council about how these reductions will be achieved.

$1 million in fund balance from Montgomery College.

$3.5 million from the Council’s changes on May 15 to PAYGO (cash) in the FY09 capital budget and resources for Park and Planning.
After a long night of yelling, negotiating, coffee-swilling and perhaps coffee-throwing, none of the Council Members had any fight left in them to repeat the political theater of prior days. All praised the placid Mike Knapp and none claimed victory over the others for their priorities. Apparently they have tired of providing fodder for loose-tongued bloggers and I do not blame them.

But everyone on all sides of the debate – the Council Members, their staff, the Executive Branch, the union leaders and all other observers – expect that the approval of this budget is only the first round in a bruising match. That is because FY10’s budget will most likely also have a deficit in the hundreds of millions and similar debates will no doubt erupt. Drink up, Council Members, because here is what the morning after will look like:

1. The public employee unions preserved their contracts this time. But two Council Members (Phil Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg) openly favored two-point reductions in their cost of living adjustments (COLAs). One more, Roger Berliner, favored a two-day furlough proposed by Mr. Andrews. Another one, incoming Council Member Donald Praisner, suggested a need to “review” union contracts during his special election campaign. That leaves the County Council only one vote away from approving “labor savings” next year. The unions are well aware of this situation and must work out a strategy to respond. They would be well-served to stick together.

2. All sides must watch the real estate market, which drives the county’s volatile recordation and transfer taxes. In an earlier post, I stated:

According to the county’s Department of Finance, residential real estate sales volume averaged over $500 million per month from 2006 through the first eight months of 2007. Since then, residential real estate sales volume has averaged between $200 and $300 million per month. It is this collapse in residential real estate transactions that has caused many of the county’s current budget problems. All policymakers – both inside the government and inside the unions – should watch this figure in the Finance Department’s monthly economic updates. If it rises back up to $400 million per month or more, the county’s real property transfer and recordation taxes will begin to recover. If it falls further, tougher times are ahead.
If the real estate market does not turn up by the end of this year, projected revenue growth for FY10 may be even slower than the anemic rates that constrained the FY09 budget.

3. The county is getting hit badly by rising fuel costs. The agencies’ budget requests did not adequately predict the meteoric recent rise in gas and diesel prices. If the County Executive submits a supplemental budget request to cover higher fuel costs, will the County Council be able to locate the money without offsetting spending cuts?

4. As we documented a month ago, the state budget continues to deteriorate. Rumors are flying that the state will have to cut aid to the counties next spring, perhaps even passing down the burden of paying teacher pension contributions. This would add MANY millions more to any county budget deficit next year.

The County Council, and especially its ever-smiling (but seldom-blogging) President Mike Knapp, performed very well this year under heavy pressure. They will need to rise to the occasion at least one more time before the current economic downtown is over.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


The County Council gathered today to pass its budget for next year. Because that budget calls for a property tax hike in excess of the rate of inflation, the county’s charter requires seven votes for it to pass. Instead, the County Council split on a 4-4 vote. Deadlock.

First the preliminaries. The council voted unanimously to divert $25 million from the PAYGO program to the operating budget. As we reported yesterday, PAYGO is a cash contribution made by the county to its capital program, which is otherwise financed by bonds. Council Member Marc Elrich recommended this measure yesterday and the rest of the council agreed. The council also voted to cut its “reconciliation list,” or the new spending it intends to add to the County Executive’s proposal, from $40 million to $25 million. The two measures combined freed up $40 million for the budget, equal to the amount of “labor savings” proposed by Council Members Duchy Trachtenberg and Phil Andrews last week.

And then came the vote on Council President Mike Knapp’s proposed budget. That budget included a property tax hike of $138 million – equal to the amount proposed by the County Executive, but structured differently. The budget also did not alter the county’s labor contracts. Council Members Knapp, Valerie Ervin, George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen voted in favor. Council Members Elrich, Trachtenberg, Andrews and Roger Berliner voted against. Deadlock.

During the campaign season, many of these council members – all Democrats – tend to sound alike. All favor labor rights, helping poor people, fiscal responsibility, “smart” growth policy and high-quality services. The way to truly evaluate the differences between these council members is how they deal with the gritty specifics of governing. Ms. Floreen loves to say, “The devil is in the details.” (Spend a half-hour with her and she will say it twice.) She is absolutely correct and, in this budget season, there is plenty of hell to go around.

Valerie Ervin and George Leventhal stand on a principle: labor agreements must be honored. Ms. Ervin credits her former membership in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (parent union of MCGEO) with helping her survive her days as a low-income single mother. Mr. Leventhal believes that high-quality services, especially the schools and public safety, are the reason why people move into Montgomery County. While many residents may be angry about taxation, he asserts that they are not angry at the public employees who serve and protect them. For both Ms. Ervin and Mr. Leventhal, any violation of the public employees’ agreements will erode the county’s ability to provide effective services and damage its value to residents over the long run.

Duchy Trachtenberg, Phil Andrews and Roger Berliner also stand on a principle: taxpayers and employees must both share the pain of reaching a budget in tough times. Ms. Trachtenberg believes that there are people in the county who are more vulnerable than public employees, including the poor, the homeless, seniors and the mentally ill. Mr. Andrews believes that it is only fair to ask county workers to accept pay reductions if residents are paying higher taxes. Whereas before he favored a two percent cost of living [COLA] reduction and “labor savings” in the amount of $40 million, he proposed today that public employees be furloughed without pay for two days. He expects that measure to save $20.5 million, which he would use to reduce the property tax hike. Mr. Berliner agreed with Mr. Andrews and declared that his furlough proposal did not “break the contracts.”

Marc Elrich did not vote against the budget because of the labor agreements, but because he disagrees with the structure of the property tax. As originally proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett, the property tax hike would have contained a significant rate increase but also a large increase in the tax credit. This would have been a rather progressive tax. The County Council voted 7-1 to decrease both the rate and the credit, effectively shifting the burden away from business and apartment buildings and onto homeowners. The council’s rationale was to lower the tax burden on renters by limiting its impact on rental buildings. Mr. Elrich would like a return to something resembling the County Executive’s proposal and is trying to leverage his vote accordingly. Since the property tax formula can be changed in multiple ways, perhaps Mr. Elrich can gain some movement in his desired direction.

Nancy Floreen said, “I don’t see the crisis particularly because we just added $20 million to the budget. I am bewildered by what the ‘crisis’ is.” Ms. Floreen has a point: the council added $40 million to the County Executive’s original spending proposal before cutting it back to $25 million today. These are hardly the acts of desperate times. She further advised against a “last minute reduction taken out of the backs of the people who provide the services.”

The council is now debating the disposition of $20 million out of a $4.3 billion budget. In almost any business or labor-management context, this relatively small sum could be worked out. But the issue has been hardened by the fact that both sides have adopted a position based on principle. Mr. Leventhal and Ms. Ervin will not bend on the labor agreements; Ms. Trachtenberg, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Berliner insist that tax increases must be accompanied by “labor savings.” Either side can block the budget because it requires seven of the sitting eight votes to pass.

And what of Council President Mike Knapp? Pity upcounty’s gentle giant. He is the man in the middle. The District of Columbia elects its Council President for a full term. The holder of that office possesses many carrots and sticks to cajole colleagues into line. But under Montgomery County's rotating Presidency, Mr. Knapp holds his office for only one year. He has much responsibility and little commensurate authority. He faces a badly divided County Council and is struggling to get them past their differences. But he must get them to agree. Because for a county government that is required by law to balance its budget, deadlock is not an option.

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.

Mike Miller is Not Going Anywhere

Recently, there has been a lot of speculation as to whether Senate President Mike Miller would stick to his earlier pledge to retire. We are putting this conjecture to rest with one bold prediction: Mike Miller is not going anywhere.

Have you ever met the Senate President? We did, back in January. The white-maned, snorting old bull stomps into any room he enters and instantly dominates it. But he does not radiate pomp or arrogance like many politicians. He instead relies on good-old-boy, Free State charm, delivered with a bellowing laugh and a rough handshake. Miller would be equally at home entertaining foreign dignitaries at the statehouse or slamming boilermakers down at the shipyard.

The Senate President regaled our group with tales of his dealings with the media. He expressed hope that the blogs could provide a bit of balance to right-wing radio “even though I know some of you are with me and some of you are against me.” And then he cast a long, baleful look around the room. Now I have heard from multiple sources that Miller is a blog reader. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Is he trying to figure out who wrote this?” Miller seemed a wee bit hurt, perhaps let down, that he could be so misunderstood by any of us. And that’s when it hit me: this is part of his bag of tricks.

Better than anyone, Mike Miller understands the volatile and fragile mix of ego, fear, hope, insecurity and the needy desire to be loved that defines most politicians. He knows how to push every one of those buttons. He praises obedient Senators as courageous. He predicts dire consequences for the wayward. He shuffles subcomittee chairmanships and vice-chairmanships like cards in an ever-winning hand. He elevates junior Senators above senior ones when they stick with the boss. A longtime Annapolis player told me, “We call him Big Daddy. When people screw up, he doesn’t get mad at them. Instead, he tells them he's ‘disappointed.’ No one wants to let Dad down.”

Miller is resented by many Montgomery County liberals because he is rabidly pro-slots and lukewarm at best on gay rights. But Miller is actually to the left of most of the county’s allegedly liberal delegation on progressive taxation. He also expressed his opposition to Virginia’s harsh immigration measures in our interview. Many liberals tend to forget that Miller has to balance a diverse group ranging from anti-tax Baltimore County Senator (and former Miller aide) James Brochin to left-wingers like Senators Paul Pinsky, Jamie Raskin and Rich Madaleno. Brochin and Madaleno are both in Miller’s doghouse now for different reasons, but they will get out eventually if they stop making trouble for the boss. That is part of Miller’s way.

What would a Miller-less Senate look like? For a preview, look at the Montgomery County Council’s current deliberations on its budget. Only a few days out from the first vote on the next budget’s outline, there was still no public agreement on how to cut the county’s $297 million deficit. The late Marilyn Praisner, the most feared head-breaker in Rockville, would have had none of that. Would this sort of thing happen to Maryland’s Senate without its fearsome overlord?

Mike Miller is surrounded by a huge group of Senate allies, aides, former aides, lobbyists, former aides who are now lobbyists and many others who are commonly referred to as his “family.” They depend on him and cannot imagine Annapolis without him. They are undoubtedly urging him to stay on because, after all, no one can do the job of Senate President as well as their Dad (or Grand-dad) can. If you were in Miller’s position, how could you say no to your entire family?

The fact is that Big Daddy is the most powerful politician in Maryland's nearly 400-year history to never occupy the Governor's chair. And whatever you may think of him, Mike Miller is not going anywhere.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Limits of Labor

Ann Marimow is a good reporter and I respect her work. But in her Sunday Post article, “Union Influence Sways Montgomery Budget Talks,” I believe she overstates her case. Montgomery County labor has power, but that power has its limits.

This may seem a curious statement coming from me. After all, my now-notorious 2006 guest post in which I christened the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) the county’s 800-pound gorilla has contributed to the image of labor power in Montgomery. The story behind that long-ago essay is that I was running a petition drive at my precinct and witnessed the extraordinary attention given by voters to MCEA’s Apple Ballot. I then calculated the 90% win percentage earned by Apple Ballot candidates in the Democratic primary and concluded that MCEA had played an important role in the election. That essay was originally intended only for my own union people and a few friends but found its way onto the Internet through third parties as a guest blog. And so began my descent into online infamy, an unhappy event lamented by many who have been spoofed here. While the point of that original post may be true, it presents only one side of the story.

Consider the following facts in assessing the limits of public union power:

1. Public employees in Montgomery County are not uniformly better paid than in other jurisdictions. I compared wages and benefits across jurisdictions in a post last month and found no systemic advantage for workers in Montgomery. In fact, firefighters and teachers lagged many other nearby counties, many Montgomery workers are not eligible for a defined benefit pension and even teachers with Masters degrees cannot afford to buy the average county townhouse. Is this a result you would expect from “Big Labor?”

2. In my 800-pound gorilla post, I wrote:

With property tax growth slowing down, the next county council will face tough budgetary decisions. Public schools account for half of the county’s budget and would be an obvious location for cuts. But don’t expect any action there: the county’s politicians have learned that those who cross the Teachers Union once are unlikely to be given a second opportunity.
How wrong can a man be and still be allowed to blog? The fact is that County Executive Leggett has not recommended full funding for the public schools’ budget request in either of his first two years in office. Last year, the County Executive proposed $19.7 million less for the school budget than requested by the Superintendent. The County Council ultimately approved $6 million less than the school request. This year, the County Executive recommended $51 million less than the Superintendent’s request, of which $26 million has so far been restored by the County Council. The school unions have performed well in defending their budget but they are hardly untouchable.

3. SEIU Local 500 has so far been unsuccessful in persuading Montgomery College to terminate its “union avoidance” attorney. If the unions were truly all-powerful, the college’s actions would have been unthinkable.

4. Union-backed candidates do not automatically win. Many have noted the losses of school board candidate Alies Muskin and County Council candidate Nancy Navarro. But look back on 2006. Progressive Maryland President Elbridge James and teacher Melodye Berry were badly outraised and finished next-to-last in their delegate races despite being Apple-approved. MCEA could not save Ida Ruben from Jamie Raskin in the District 20 Senate race. And Apple Republican incumbents Howard Denis (County Council) and Jean Cryor (State Delegate) fell to Democratic challengers. Apparently George W. Bush had more sway with MoCo voters than did MCEA!

Pure union-only candidates struggle. Labor tends to do best when it backs candidates in concert with others. For example, a combination of union and civic support helped to elect County Council Members Duchy Trachtenberg and Marc Elrich and resulted in the eviction of Mike Subin. The real genius of the county’s labor strategists has been to pick candidates who are strong on their own merits and (hopefully) agree on union priorities. But even union-supported candidates sometimes stray, as has Council Member Trachtenberg – further evidence of the limits of labor power.

I will bet that most of our readers are not union members. “Why should I care about this?” you ask. Montgomery has always been a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” county. Our citizens have been willing to pay higher taxes than in other jurisdictions in a belief that higher service quality would result. Many Montgomery residents are employees or contractors of the federal government and easily see the relationship between funding and performance. Sometimes residents make common cause with unions in seeking county funding, as PTA members occasionally do with MCEA. By pressing for good compensation and adequate budgets, the unions help the county maintain its service level and recruit superior talent. Without strong unions, Montgomery’s politics might resemble those of infighting, school-challenged, crony-infested Prince George’s, or perhaps developer-, business- and tax-activist-dominated Northern Virginia.

Look into the eyes of this woman and read her sign. Labor is at its best when it presents her message to both the politicians and the public at large. Labor has power. Labor has limits. But labor, and the rest of the county, can only succeed if our citizens agree with the woman above.

Disclosure: The author is the Assistant to the General President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which does not represent government employees in Maryland.

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.