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Common sense, at last, on the Montgomery County budget

By Editorial, Published: May 10
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, Published: May 2 | Updated: Tuesday, April 26, 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.

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.