The Montgomery County Council on Monday voted to reduce already negotiated pay increases for county government and school system employees in next fiscal year’s budget, an extremely rare move that comes days before council members are expected to approve large tax increases to boost education funding.
The council voted 8-1, with Marc Elrich opposed, to eliminate funding for a 3.5 percent second step increase in May 2017 for county government and police department employees who had step increases deferred from 2012 and 2013. The 8-1 vote also included cutting a cost-of-living increase for county firefighters from 2 percent to 1 percent.
The council then voted 9-0 to direct Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to eliminate a second step increase scheduled for its employees and move almost $37 million of funding from salary increases to pay for reducing class sizes and solving the achievement gap.
The council is set for a final vote on the fiscal year 2017 budget May 26.
Elrich’s break with the other eight council members on the issue of deferred raises for county government employees brought criticism from council member George Leventhal, who said allowing county government employees to get their deferred step increases would hurt the school board in its ongoing negotiations to eliminate deferred step increases for its more than 22,000 teachers, administrators and other employees.
A deal renegotiated in the past two weeks between the county and the three unions that represent government employees, police and firefighters simply pushed back many of the salary increases set for fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018.
“It is not possible to honor some and not others,” Leventhal said. “The effect of what my friend and colleague [Elrich] is saying is no reduced classroom size.”
Elrich disagreed and said he supported the renegotiated deal with county employees and not the full salary increases for schools employees because county employees “are between two and three step [increases] behind and the teachers union is one step behind.”
The council then pledged unanimous support of a $2.45 billion schools operating budget that is nearly $90 million more than the minimum required by state law. If the school board follows through on its commitment to divert almost $37 million from pay raises to other purposes, the additional spending on classrooms could result in a reduction of two students per class in most schools, according to council staff.
The council also agreed to fund $1.72 billion of the school system’s $1.73 billion capital budget request for the next six years, a total that would eliminate the school board’s request for artificial turf field funding. The council-approved capital budget would delay addition projects at East Silver Spring, Greencastle and Woodlin elementary schools two years and addition projects at Piney Branch Elementary School, Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School and Walt Whitman High School one year.
Council members made clear the spending approved Monday is dependent on the council’s approval of a 6.4 percent property tax increase and an increase of the county’s tax on home sales, a topic that has elicited fierce opposition from many in the real estate industry.
The council is set to discuss and possibly vote on those two topics later this week.
“We are about to do three things that some of us said we would not do again,” council member Roger Berliner said, referring to the proposed property tax increase above the county’s charter limit and home sales recordation tax increase as well as funding the school system over the minimum required by the state’s maintenance of effort law.
“It’s not without pain,” he said. “Let’s please acknowledge that we are asking our taxpayers to help the school system because this is the year of the schools. This is an education-first budget. If you think we love raising our hands to increase property taxes—I don’t think so.”