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.

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