Saturday, December 4, 2010

Four Billion and Counting

The budget for Montgomery County is now over four billion dollars and has been so for the last few years. Over half of that sum goes for funding our educational systems; additional fixed amounts account for salaries for county employees. MCPS pays for about 22,000 employees; the county covers about another 10,000 people. Those salaries are a large portion of the fixed costs that are necessary expenses in every county budget. Recent reports have put salaries, benefits and pensions at 80% of the budget. Last year approximately 56% of all revenues received went to cover costs at MCPS and Montgomery College. Variable costs include snow removal, unexpected repairs of roads or buildings, sudden increases in costs of goods.

What is not calculated in the budget numbers are economic downturns, abrupt decreases in expected income and falling tax revenues. Budgets are predicated on expected revenues as forecast by income and sales taxes, fees and transfer taxes from real estate transactions. When those fall significantly below expectations, belt tightening must occur. Counties and states must report out a balanced budget; they cannot extend out balance sheets beyond the current year. Editorials have recently spoken out in favor of significant reductions for contracts of "overly generous benefit packages," sometimes worth more than the paycheck over time. But how does the county do that? Incoming Council President Valerie Ervin has asked for legislation requiring arbitration to ensure that any negotiated agreements fit within budget guidelines which are affordable. This could be done moving forward, but where does this leave agreements which are already in place?

The country has a Debt Commission appointed by the President to come up with suggestions for savings and revenue enhancements in the future. The county has no such luxury, so I'm asking readers to weigh in here. Which programs can we cut? We certainly cannot pay people less than we did last year -- can we? Well, if furloughs are again given as a solution, we are already planning on doing that. And, since granting a waiver to the MCPS employees last year, did not sit well with the other county employees who did have enforced days off, where should we go in the future? (Then there was that confusing addition of more leave days, which never quite made sense to me.) However re: MCPS, the Board of Education said accepting the furloughs would have made the issue of underfunding the Maintenance of Effort even more of a burden and make it more likely for the county to be refused another waiver by the State Board, which has to approve it. It appears to many people that this is a regulation which has outlived its usefulness, but that remains an issue for the state delegations, especially since it has remained in effect and is adhered to in most other counties in the state.

So -- no easy solutions appear on the horizon. Many major questions remain unanswered. The ambulance fees were defeated, no monies were found there. The government just announced that federal pay is frozen for the next two years, so no increases in income taxes from that group can be anticipated. There are approximately 50,000 federal employees who call Montgomery County home and a few hundred thousand in the State of Maryland, so the negative ripples flow across the state. What should we expect from the new council? First they are not going to be able to print money -- the county does not have an independent treasury -- so they are going to have fewer revenues to work with and will be able to do less than they did last year. Secondly, the make-up of the council committee structure is changed with the new council members being added and some shifts in structure. Finally, County Executive Ike Leggett has asked for 15% cuts from many departments and is expecting reports from department heads soon with their suggestions. The health and safety areas are being asked for about 5% cuts. Education is also targeted, although the BoE cannot realistically expect exemption from the belt-tightening, the Superintendant has asked for increases, despite the budget issues, since enrollment has increased somewhat. It looks as if we will have to be seeing increases in class sizes, if the school board is going to look at this issue seriously. Recreation is discussing closing down programs and having partial day services. The Para-medics are not going to receive promised increases.

Although we are looking at serious concerns, the county situation is better than what happened early last summer, in some states, where large numbers of teachers were laid off and schools were let out early. Just how close are to that scenario? That is something that is not readily apparent to the casual observer. Should we be asking all county employees at the executive grades to voluntarily give back ten percent of their salaries? Sadly that would be a symbolic gesture, more than it would be a savings measure. When one saves thousands, yet needs to save millions, somehow it does not make ends meet. Just as cracking the piggy bank is not going to pay ones mortgage. As mentioned above, one significant issue was the cost of our county employees’ benefits packages. MCPS employees pay low co-pays and have a better health plan than the other county employees. Would it be cheaper in the long run to have the county negotiate with a single health benefit provider and supplementary packager for all covered employees? Just what should the county ask of its union employees? How sustainable are ever increasing county salaries when the average earnings over the last decade for most other workers have been flat and retirees have seen no COLA increases in the last two years? How realistic are annual raises and step increases as contracted measures? Does private industry (aside from Wall Street and the banking industry) give bonuses in bad years?

So -- you taxpayers out there -- which services are you willing to do without this year? We have already seen our libraries cut to the bone, parks and recreation services flattened, emergency services decreasing response time, roads patched instead of resurfaced, services to the needy diminished in our safety net areas, what is left? Let me hear from you -- on Monday our new Council is being installed and our County Executive takes office for what he has said is his final term -- what message shall we send to our elected officials?

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