Montgomery council leader’s switch on unions shows shift in politics
By Robert McCartney, Published: June 29
When a former professional labor organizer, who won county office thanks to union support, helps push through a controversial clampdown on government workers’ benefits, you know the political climate has changed in liberal Montgomery County.
County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) organized poultry and catfish farm laborers in the Mississippi Delta in the 1980s. She came to Washington to work at the United Food and Commercial Workers headquarters.
Despite that background, she led the council in an overwhelming vote Tuesday to overhaul the county’s disability retirement system over passionate opposition from employees’ unions.
It was only the latest step in a continuing effort by the council and County Executive Ike Leggett (D) to save money in hard times, even at the expense of county unions that have long been kingmakers in Montgomery Democratic politics.
Ervin said she has paid a personal toll in hurt relations with labor officials whom she has long known. One is Gino Renne, president of the county government employees union.
“It’s kind of a heartbreaking scenario for me to be where I am vis-a-vis the people I have known and worked with for many years,” Ervin said.
She made no apologies, saying the unions have been unwilling to bargain realistically, given how county resources have dwindled since the recession.
The unions contend that the council should not interfere in collective bargaining. Ervin said the council stayed out of the disability retirement issue for 21 / 2 years waiting for the unions to budge, but to no avail.
“We’ve given them many chances to negotiate with the executive, and it clearly wasn’t going to happen,” Ervin said.
Ervin and the rest of the political leadership deserve applause for daring to disappoint their former friends. Although it’s regrettable to see working people whacked by a pay freeze, furloughs and reduced benefits, the money is not there to do otherwise. Montgomery has already slashed spending on other worthy recipients, such as libraries, parks and recreation programs.
Ervin’s shift in perspective illustrates an important realignment in Montgomery, the Washington region’s second largest jurisdiction.
Even though Montgomery is hardly a working-class county, unions have played an out-sized role in politics. That’s partly because they’re openhanded with campaign contributions and campaign workers. Ervin said union “boots on the street” were crucial to her successful first campaign for the council in 2006. (She was reelected last year.)
Union opposition played a leading role last year in ousting council member Duchy Trachtenberg after she pushed for changes in the retirement system similar to what the council just approved on a 7 to 1 vote (with one abstention).
Unions are also influential because many Montgomery residents, despite being upper-middle-class themselves, instinctively sympathize with working-class people.
Call it empathy for the underdog. Call it liberal guilt. Either way, lawyers and senior lobbyists earning well into six figures feel righteous voting for candidates whose campaign literature boasts union endorsements.
In past years, such sentiment translated into routine support for union objectives. Politicians okayed generous pay increases. They looked the other way when police officers retired on tax-free, full disability even for only a partial incapacity like a bad knee.
Now, by contrast, county employees didn’t get a raise in the budget year that ends Thursday. They aren’t going to get one in the year beginning Friday. The new, two-tier disability plan will pay less to workers who retire when only partially debilitated. The council passed legislation in December to give management more leverage in arbitration.
“What’s happening is we are in a different environment altogether,” Ervin said. “We don’t have the revenue coming into the county that was coming in years ago.”
Although it hasn’t been easy for her effectively siding with management, she draws a distinction between the chicken plant workers whom she once represented and the public employees with whom she’s wrestling today.
“In my opinion, they’re very different, because taxpayers are the ones who are responsible for paying the freight,” Ervin said.
I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).
New bill would help contain runaway spending in Montgomery County
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 9:22 PM
PUBLIC WORKERS in Montgomery County have enjoyed a spectacular run over the last decade, thanks to munificent politicians, powerful unions and a badly tilted playing field that favors workers over management. Many workers who were on the county's payroll in 2000 have seen their salaries double, in addition to receiving ever-improving benefits. Since salaries and benefits amount to 80 percent of county spending - and almost 90 percent of school spending - the fruit of the county's profligacy is a structural deficit that has proved impervious to repeated tax increases.
A bill before the County Council would provide officials with a lever to restore some balance. It was introduced by the new council chair, Valerie Ervin, a product of years in the labor movement. That Ms. Ervin would sponsor legislation to trim the power of public-worker unions is a hopeful sign - and a telling one of how tilted the field has become.
In the event that an impasse in contract negotiations leads to arbitration, Ms. Ervin's bill would require the arbitrator to give priority consideration to the county's ability to pay without resorting to tax increases. This is common sense. Astonishingly, though, affordability has been practically a non-factor in arbitrators' rulings, the vast majority of which - nine of 11 since 1988 - have favored unions' demands. Arbitrators have assumed that the county will comply by raising taxes, and the county has blithely obliged again and again.
The result is that Montgomery has the fattest and least affordable contracts in the region and is now cutting services to pay for them. Spending for libraries, for instance, by next year will have been slashed by almost a third in two years. Other vital functions will also suffer as County Executive Isiah Leggett tries to close about $350 million in deficits this year and next in an already lean $4.3 billion budget that takes effect this summer.
Mr. Leggett has been silent on the legislation. But, mindful of the county's string of losses, he has previously acknowledged his reluctance to risk arbitration. The most important effect of the legislation, if enacted, would be to stiffen Mr. Leggett's spine in negotiations, including those underway with unions representing police, firefighters and thousands of other county workers.
One way to measure the likely impact is by the unions' dyspepsia as the bill moves toward a final vote next week. Gino Renne,âˆš who leads the union representing 6,000 general county workers, publicly abused county lawmakers who are backing the bill. He singled out Hans RiemerReimer, a Democrat who took office this week, telling him, "You're gonna be a one-termer, pal."
Some council members, perhaps heeding such threats, say they may oppose the legislation. They argue that the council is not bound by arbitrators' rulings and can choose to deny funding for excessive contracts. That's technically true; in the real world, however, the council has done so only once in recent memory. Why pretend that the deck, as now arranged, is not badly stacked against the county and its taxpayers?
Montgomery's workers do an excellent job providing services, and they deserve fair reward. But current compensation levels are not sustainable. A new report by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight outlines a menu of possible options, including layoffs, cuts in salaries and benefits and slowing wage growth.
Unfortunately, some combination of these painful choices will likely be necessary as a corrective to the county's past failure to say no. The legislation before the council is not a cure-all; the council will face far more difficult steps in the months ahead if it is to contain personnel costs. Still, Ms. Ervin's bill could play a key role in setting the stage for those tough decisions. Voters should take note of her shouldering this responsibility and watch which members have the courage to stand with her.
Unshackling Montgomery County police
WHEN WAS IT that the management of the Montgomery County Police Department began to resemble a California commune, circa the Summer of Love? If forced to pinpoint a date, we might say it was April 6, 1982. That’s when the County Council adopted a lopsided, staggeringly ill-advised law that gave the police union the almost unlimited right to challenge the most basic management decisions by department officials and tie them up in months or years of negotiations.
Now, after years of preposterous union challenges to no-brainer management directives, the County Council is trying to restore some sanity. It is set to vote on a measure that would roll back the police union’s ability to gum up the works, putting the union on the same footing as the unions representing county firefighters and general government workers.
Collective bargaining makes sense when it promotes fair wages, pensions, health benefits, hours and conditions affecting workers’ health and safety. But as a result of the 1982 law, the issues open to bargaining in the Montgomery police department are virtually limitless, as a county reform commission concluded this year. For example, when Police Chief J. Thomas Manger directed police officers to check county e-mail once a day — hardly an abusive demand — the union objected, blocking implementation to this day and requiring that the department communicate with its officers by means of printed material.
Similarly, the union blocked Chief Manger’s attempts to require that officers type their police reports directly into the department’s electronic system — the same move away from paper that offices worldwide have been making for years. It took three years of bargaining, and concessions by the department, to get to an agreement on that.
After an uptick in crime in Silver Spring some months ago, Chief Manger was not even able to ask for volunteers among his officers to beef up deployments there without a fear that the union would object to his move as a “prohibited practice” subject to bargaining.
Just as outrageous, the union was able to handcuff management when it wanted to install technology — intended mainly to protect officers on patrol — enabling the department to continuously track the location of police cruisers. The union demanded, and received, assurances that the tracking information could not be used in any disciplinary proceedings.
There are endless examples of such lunacy in a department otherwise known for its officers’ professionalism and responsiveness. As far as county officials could determine, no other jurisdiction in Maryland has enacted a similar law or allowed such a twisted situation to fester in its police department. If ever there were a need for the County Council to speak unanimously in restoring common sense and balance to a critical agency of government, this is it.
Montgomery’s time to slow the exorbitant rate of police disability retirements
CRIME RATES in Montgomery County are trending down, thanks at least partly to the county’s hale and hearty police force. Many Montgomery officers, however, seem to regard themselves as frail, sickly and pain-addled — at least judging from the astonishing rate at which they continue to retire with full, tax-free disability pensions.
More than half the county police retire with disability awards equal to two-thirds of their salary, costing county taxpayers millions of dollars annually. The disability system, which makes no distinction between a sore wrist and neck-down paralysis, was first exposed as a scam almost three years ago — “abusive,” in the words of Montgomery’s inspector general. Some officers who received disability pensions went on to other, physically demanding jobs elsewhere.
Now, as the County Council prepares to do something about it, police are fighting back tooth and nail.
To understand the disability racket in Montgomery, compare the claims there to those in neighboring Fairfax County. According to statistics compiled by The Washington Examiner last week, 91 Montgomery police officers were awarded disability pensions in five years ending in 2009, and another 25 applied last year. (Few applicants are denied the award.) But in the decade ending last year, just three Fairfax police officers managed to score a disability pension.
At the heart of the dysfunction in Montgomery are two problems — one cultural and one systemic. Of course police officers work hard and bravely to keep citizens safe. But there also appears to be a sense of entitlement among some county public safety officers. Witness the scheme in recent years whereby more than 200 police officers and sheriff’s deputies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on courses that were in fact taxpayer-funded scams to buy cut-rate weapons for officers to use recreationally or resell, as they saw fit.
The systemic problem is more susceptible to legislative remedy. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) has introduced legislation that makes a common-sense distinction between serious and minor impairments, establishing two levels of disability awards. The bill would diminish the early-retirement incentive for officers with aching backs and knees, who represent the large majority of disability claims, while still maintaining generous awards for officers with more serious injuries. It would also sensibly disqualify officers who commit firing offenses from collecting disability pensions.
The county’s fire and rescue workers have had such a two-tiered system for almost a decade. And while many firefighters continue to claim disability pensions, the vast majority are judged to have partial disabilities, saving taxpayers money.
In thrall to unions representing government workers, the council rejected similar legislation two years ago. But things have changed, and county politicians have gotten the message that profligate spending on swindles such as the disability dodge can no longer be business as usual in Montgomery. The council is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday. We hope this time members will muster the political will to adopt it unanimously.
Montgomery’s $18 million schools ‘miracle’
WHEN THE Montgomery County Council scratched $25 million from spending on county schools last month — cuts that amounted to scarcely 1 percent of the schools’ budget — howls of protest were heard. The Board of Education cried foul, and PTAs and the teachers union chimed in, warning parents that classrooms would be devastated, instruction would suffer — even property values would plummet.
Now — presto! — the schools have conjured $21 million in “savings,” mostly, they say, because hale and hearty employees have suddenly reduced their health insurance claims by $15 million to $18 million.
That raises a question: Will the windfall be directed to the classroom, to avoid planned layoffs of special education instructors, remedial reading teachers and counselors, for instance? No, says the school board (and, more to the point, the teachers union, which really calls the shots — and announced the decision). Instead, much of the money will be used to spare employees from a small hike in their ultra-low health insurance premiums.
Parents of students should be livid. Despite alarmist rhetoric about the threat to instruction, it turns out that school officials are not worried primarily about children. They’re more concerned with sustaining a benefit under which most teachers pick up just 5 percent of their health-care costs.
Council members are furious, and with reason. They accuse the schools of padding their $2 billion budget by hiding the so-called “savings” from the council, which by law controls the county’s purse strings. These are serious charges, and they come at a terrible time. A new school superintendent, Joshua P. Starr, takes over the 146,000-student system July 1. He steps into a venomous war of words between the council on the one hand and the school board and the unions on the other.
We’re all for healthier teachers, but it begs credulity to pretend the school system has just now discovered the insurance windfall. When we asked union president Doug Prouty why council members were not made aware of the “savings” earlier, he said it was because they failed to ask. To the naked eye, it appears the schools were using their insurance claims budget as a sort of slush fund.
Aggrieved school officials like to complain that they’ve somehow been mistreated by the council. Never mind that overall spending by the system has increased over the past three years — albeit with state and federal help — even as the council has slashed outlays for libraries, parks, health, transportation, police, and fire and rescue. And never mind that Montgomery’s per-pupil spending remains much higher than Fairfax County’s.
The schools’ sense of entitlement reflects a mind-set formed during a decade of fantastic increases in salaries and benefits lavished on public education by an ambitious superintendent and politicians currying favor with the teachers union. Those benefits, in particular, were unsustainable and are now being rolled back. The County Council, having been burned once, will be within its rights to take an even harder line with the school system next year.
Level the field on contracts
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 6:35 PM
MONTGOMERY COUNTY has dug itself a budgetary hole so deep that it will take major structural and systemic reforms for it to climb out. Even after severe spending cuts for the past several years, the county still has to slash $300 million this year to balance its $4.3 billion budget. The obvious place to start a major rethink is in the county's relationship with its public-employee unions.
More than three-quarters of Montgomery's spending goes to employee wages and benefits, including more than 80 percent of all spending by the school system. Compensation for most employees rose much faster in the past decade in Montgomery than in other localities in this region. Those increases were nice for hardworking government employees but also unsustainable.
Still, local elected officials, who owed their jobs largely to the political support and donations from unions representing public employees, continued to treat workers to sharp raises and Cadillac retirement and health plans until the recession hit and the bottom fell out.
Now a County Council once incapable of saying no is grappling with new realities. One is that the council must end the collective bargaining practices that granted county employees annual pay increases of 8 percent and benefits unmatched in the private sector.
Since 1983, the county and one of its main unions (representing police, firefighters and general employees) have turned to arbitration 20 times after negotiations ended in an impasse - including three in the past few weeks. Arbitrators have sided with unions all but four times, suggesting they, and the process itself, are tilted heavily against the county and taxpayers.
For years the council rubber-stamped arbitrators' rulings, even though it was not bound by them (unlike the county executive, who is). But recently the council has begun ignoring the pro-union rulings, which would cost the county millions of dollars, and no wonder: When arbitrators grant unaffordable victories to unions, why should elected officials comply?
A commission appointed by the council last year has made some possibly useful recommendations to reengineer the way the system works by making collective bargaining more evenhanded and transparent. The commission would require that both sides publish their opening proposals and that the arbitrator hold a public hearing on the evidence before ruling in favor of either side's last best offer. The idea is that public input would make the council less likely to rubber-stamp irresponsible contracts.
The commission also recommended that impasses be adjudicated by a panel of three arbitrators modeled after systems in New York and Pennsylvania. One member would be named by each side, and the decisive third drawn from a list approved by the council, adding accountability.
There's no guarantee these proposals would fix a broken system, but they're worth trying. It makes no sense to stick with a process that has contributed so heavily to bloated budgets.
Common sense, at last, on the Montgomery County budget
A JUDGE IN Montgomery County has ruled that the county executive owes primary responsibility in drafting his annual budget to — surprise! — his constituents.
That conclusion, reached by circuit court judge Ronald B. Rubin last week, may seem absurdly obvious. But it injects a note of common sense into the escalating dispute between the county government and its public employee unions. The unions’ years-long aura of invincibility seems to be fading in the face of Montgomery’s inability to sustain excessive salaries and benefits for county workers.
The ruling is a milestone in the dispute between County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat, and the police union, which sued him for seeking to roll back compensation for its members. In effect, the judge’s decision simply reaffirmed Mr. Leggett’s obligation to submit a budget that reflects his best judgment, which is surely what voters expect of him.
The union insisted that Mr. Leggett honor the decision of unelected arbitrators, who, by the way, side with the unions about 90 percent of the time. If the union had prevailed, it would have tied the hands of Mr. Leggett and his successors, forcing them to make budget proposals that clashed with their vision and values.
County employees are crucial to the quality of life in Montgomery County, and they should be fairly compensated. But Mr. Leggett is right that his allegiance is to the county as a whole and its 1 million residents. He would rather spread the pain of budget cuts — including to county workers — than let it fall exclusively on libraries, parks, social services and other government functions already badly hit by three years of budget cuts.
In response to the judge’s ruling, union leaders threatened to bypass the county executive and take their case directly to the county council, which controls the purse strings. In fact, that has always been the unions’ prerogative, and they have hardly stinted in seeking to influence council members with campaign contributions and political activism.
The council in turn is within its rights to rewrite Mr. Leggett’s proposals. Some council members have said his budget, as submitted, inflicts too much pain on government workers, some of whose whose health benefits would be sharply curtailed, and not enough, on teachers and other school employees. That may be the case.
Still, the council will have to find $30 million in savings to balance the county’s budget of more than $4 billion. That’s the same amount Mr. Leggett insisted on in his blueprint; there are no shortcuts.
The judge’s ruling leaves the county with a system that makes little sense, as we’ve said before and as Mr. Leggett and union leaders would probably agree. They can go to “binding arbitration,” but the results are neither binding nor useful. The only way to overcome what have become perennial impasses between Montgomery and its labor force is to reform the process by which union contracts are negotiated and settled.
Driving up labor costs in Montgomery County
By Editorial, 4:14 PM
THROUGH A 25-YEAR political career that has included leadership roles in Montgomery County and a stint as Maryland’s Democratic Party chairman, Isiah Leggett, the current county executive, has been a steadfast advocate for organized labor and public-sector unions. So it’s astonishing that Mr. Leggett has lately become the subject of venomous personal attacks by the county’s public-sector unions.
His sin? Trying to rein in Montgomery’s unsustainable labor costs, which include salaries that have doubled in the past decade for some county employees. For that, Mr. Leggett is now abused by the county’s labor bosses, who call him “Nixonesque” and paint him as Maryland’s answer to Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s union-busting governor.
In the unions’ view, Mr. Leggett’s offense is to have rolled back or ignored, for three years running, signed labor contracts and arbitrators’ awards. That sounds patently illegal; in fact, the law is murky. Two years ago, the county firefighters’ union sued Mr. Leggett for refusing to honor the terms of its labor contract after the recession sapped county revenues. The union lost. Last month, in a similar case, the police sued — and won. The case is now before the courts.
The question is whether Montgomery’s charter, which obligates Mr. Leggett to protect the county’s fiscal health, trumps labor agreements. The labor relations officer who decided the case two years ago said that it did, agreeing with Mr. Leggett’s view that honoring the firefighters’ contract would force him to irresponsibly gut budgets for libraries, parks and other services — and initiate sweeping layoffs. Last week’s ruling went the other way.
That has left the county in a bizarre legal limbo, where collective bargaining has become a sort of charade. Mr. Leggett, seeking to stave off ever more draconian budget cuts, has regularly flouted the results of so-called binding arbitration to resolve labor disputes. The County Council, which controls appropriations, has made clear it is not legally bound by any contracts or arbitrators’ awards — although in practice council members have often been swayed by the unions.
All this is unsustainable. At the heart of the problem in containing spiraling labor costs is the county’s binding arbitration system, a heavily tilted field in which the unions almost always prevail. Arbitrators must be approved by both sides, but in practice the unions have exerted the most influence in choosing them.
A few months ago, the council tried to fix this by requiring that arbitrators give top priority to the county’s ability to pay. Unfortunately, the result was business as usual: Three straight impasses were resolved in the unions’ favor despite large ongoing and projected budget deficits. Honoring those arbitrators’ awards would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in further lost services, even higher taxes, or both. Any given arbitrator may be correct that the county can afford one particular contract, but the cumulative effect, which Mr. Leggett is in a better position to judge, is harmful.
The council should consider legislation to mandate a more even-handed arbitration process. One model might be Baltimore County, where arbitration is handled by a panel that includes, but isn’t controlled by, labor.
Failing that, Montgomery voters will have no choice but to consider a more drastic measure — amending the county charter to limit or abolish collective bargaining for public employees. Already, a petition drive to do that is in the works for the 2012 ballot. That may seem like a nuclear option, but readily available evidence suggests it is not: Just across the Potomac in Virginia, Fairfax County manages to attract a first-rate, well-paid and fairly treated public workforce — without collective bargaining and with more sustainable labor costs.