County budget: Gov't-unions call the shots

As Montgomery County's elected officials prepare this week to raise taxes and trim services to close a projected $300 million budget shortfall, most are reluctant to roll back raises negotiated by powerful union leaders. Over the past two decades, the influence of the unions representing public employees in the county has grown dramatically. Former and current government officials say Montgomery's bargaining system -- along with labor's political clout -- gives workers as strong a voice, if not stronger, than taxpayers in budget talks.

For years, union leaders Gino Renne, Walter Bader and John J. Sparks have been a driving force behind improving working conditions for Montgomery's bus drivers, social workers, police officers, firefighters and other employees. Recent labor contracts provide most workers with salary increases of 26 to 29 percent over three years, including 8 percent this fiscal year for most general government workers.

Their impact goes beyond salary negotiations: The three have had a hand in defining the role of library volunteers, choosing the lawyers the county hires to negotiate contracts, organizing lifeguards and leaf collectors and enhancing labor's role in overseeing a $3 billion retirement system.

The County Council has the final say in approving contracts negotiated by the county executive but rarely exercises its power as a backstop.

"Although you may know in your heart that the only way to deal with this particular deficit is to broach the union contracts, it is difficult for politicians who wish to be reelected to vote against the union contracts because the unions can rise up and defeat you," said former council member Nancy Dacek, who was defeated after three terms by a union-backed rival.

Personnel costs will account for 80 percent of spending in fiscal 2009. Members of Renne's Municipal and County Government Employee Organization are slated to receive raises of 4.5 percent in July; in addition, most would continue to receive 3.5 percent annual step increases. General government workers are scheduled to receive general pay raises of 4 percent in the District and 4.5 percent on average in Fairfax County.

Council members Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large) last week recommended reducing raises by two percentage points, in part to offset the property tax increase proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). But that idea has not gained traction with their colleagues.

"We do not have to balance this budget on the backs of working people," council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) told the hundreds of union members who lined up to defend their contracts at a public hearing last week.

Union leaders add that talk of a fiscal crisis is overblown and that raises are necessary to attract talent to deliver services residents have come to expect.

"We come to work, we serve the public and we expect to receive what we bargained for in good faith," Renne said.

In a heavily Democratic county, the unions' strength is part politics, part personality and part policy. Human Resources director Joseph Adler, who has worked at the state level, said the premise of collective bargaining is that both sides come to the table as equals.

"Montgomery's statute, from what I've seen, goes the furthest in making that a reality," he said.

Many jurisdictions nationwide call for binding arbitration when contract talks with firefighters or police officers reach an impasse. Montgomery and the District, however, are the only jurisdictions in the region that also provide for arbitration when talks break down with general government workers.

In Montgomery, arbitrators must by law look at the wages and benefits of other public employees in the region, including teachers.

Arbitrators also must consider the county's ability to pay. Jim Torgesen, labor relations manager from 1977 until 2005, said that was often a tough sell for Montgomery in flush times. Since 1983, arbitrators have sided with the unions in 11 of 14 cases.

To the three long-serving union leaders, their advocacy is more lifestyle or religion than a job. After 24 years as president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 35, Bader has technically stepped aside, but he is still at the bargaining table, with encyclopedic recall.

Sparks, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, is the slow and steady closer known as "Sparky." He greets some female council members with a kiss. And Renne, a flamboyant and sometimes profane former deputy sheriff, turns up the heat at the table only to later invite the targets of his ire for a drink.

"Over the years, they have developed a level of sophistication and knowledge of history that can be very effective," Torgesen said.

When Bader caught wind of a memo last year asking the council to sign off on a law firm he viewed as anti-union, he alerted Renne, who immediately called Leggett.

"If you bring in that law firm with a history of being antagonistic to unions," Renne said he told Leggett, it would have a "profound impact on our relationship for years to come."

Five days after the memo was sent, the county pulled its request and later sought council approval of a different law firm.

Council analysts have recommended scrapping several contract provisions. The county is slated to spend $1.75 million to buy 35 patrol cars for police officers who live beyond the county's borders. Officers who are county residents are allowed to use a patrol car when they are off duty, whereas out-of-county officers drive a personal vehicle to and from work.

Under the program, out-of-county officers could park patrol cars in lots near the county line. The program, according to council staff, "means very expensive vehicles can sit unused for days." Analysts instead suggest using some of the money to restore a police recruit class.

Bader said the program would allow more officers to respond to calls en route to work.

In contract talks with Renne, the county agreed to increase from three to five the number of union representatives on the board that oversees the county's retirement funds. Council analysts have recommended against it, saying that the board was designed to provide accountability to taxpayers, who pay 87 percent of the annual contribution.

Since the early 1980s, when voters first approved collective bargaining, the unions' influence has grown in ways large and small. Among the 1,500 proposals Renne brought to the table last year was language phasing out the use of volunteers "for any work that is essential to the basic operation of the library system."

When the council balked, a compromise was crafted that instead phases out volunteers for "any function which requires direct access to the library circulation system computer or circulation data."

In 2002, at Renne's urging, the council passed legislation that expanded his ranks to include such temporary workers as lifeguards and recreation staff. Membership ballooned from 5,500 to about 8,000.

Senior legislative attorney Michael Faden cautioned the council at the time that the measure would absorb workers into the union by "legislative fiat." Responses to postcards the council sent to workers asking for their feedback were "uniformly negative," Faden wrote.

Renne attributed the response to the wording of the notice. The county, he said, has intentionally kept costs down by "exploiting" temporary workers who do not qualify for overtime or health benefits.

Dacek was the lone council member that year to vote against the legislation. She paid at the ballot box. Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) defeated Dacek, a Republican, in 2002 with help from the unions.

For candidates seeking election, unions can play a critical role, providing money and ground troops to get out the vote. But labor's track record at the polls has been mixed. In last month's Democratic primary in District 4, however, Don Praisner defeated union-backed School Board President Nancy Navarro. And union leaders have not quieted Andrews after they backed his unsuccessful opponent in 2006.

Said Renne, "We're going to keep running people until we find someone to beat him."


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