Category Archives: Adam Pagnucco

Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part Four

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part Three, we learned that rising average wages during the pandemic are likely a sign of growing income inequality as job losses are concentrated in lower paying positions. Preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests how this is playing out across Maryland.

BLS’s county employment series has a six-month lag in release time. As of this writing, county-level data are only available through the second quarter of 2020. However, BLS also has a state and metro area series that is more up to date. Preliminary data for that series is currently available through the end of 2020. BLS releases that data for metropolitan statistical areas in Maryland defined as follows:

Baltimore-Columbia-Towson: Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne’s counties.
California-Lexington Park: St. Mary’s County.
Cumberland: Allegany County in Maryland and Mineral County in West Virginia.
Hagerstown-Martinsburg: Washington County in Maryland and Berkeley and Morgan counties in West Virginia.
Silver Spring-Frederick-Rockville: Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Baltimore City
Calvert-Charles-Prince George’s

The chart below shows nonfarm employment declines by Maryland metro area in 2020.

According to the state’s wealth measures, Allegany County, Washington County and Baltimore City, which had some of the largest job losses, are three of the least wealthy jurisdictions in Maryland. The Silver Spring-Frederick-Rockville metro area, which had one of the smallest job losses, is dominated by Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in Maryland. This chart, while admittedly incomplete, hints at widening geographic inequality between different parts of the state.

The chart below shows change in average hourly earnings by Maryland metro area in 2020.

California-Lexington Park (St. Mary’s County) is the only metro area here showing a drop in average hourly earnings. All the other areas show an increase exceeding the 1.4% rise in the national consumer price index last year. Remember what we learned in Part Three: because low-wage workers have likely been disproportionately affected by the COVID recession, a rising average wage is probably a sign of rising income inequality. This chart, while also incomplete, hints at rising inequality inside many local jurisdictions in the state.

There is a silver lining for state and local budgets here: low income workers pay lower absolute amounts of property and income taxes than higher income workers. To the extent that the recession’s impact falls disproportionately on the lower end of the income distribution, budget losses may turn out to be less than initially feared. But that’s cold comfort to those who have been let go from payroll jobs and have turned to the gig economy to survive. Governments that benefit from less-than-expected budget pain have a responsibility to help these people until the economy revives.

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part Two, we identified one reason why average wages have been rising during the COVID recession: job losses have been concentrated in the leisure and hospitality sector. Since that sector pays low wages, disproportionate job losses there tend to push average wage rates up.

But that’s not all that is going on.

The chart below shows changes in average hourly earnings by sector in Maryland. Most sectors are seeing substantial increases, with some beating the 1.4% change in the consumer price index in 2020 by several multiples.

The craziest finding in that chart is that leisure and hospitality, which had by far the biggest job loss in 2020, also had the largest increase in average hourly earnings. That violates every lesson in supply and demand taught in Economics 101. An industry with precipitous job losses should have a big drop in wages. Why is the opposite happening?

Let’s take a closer look at Maryland’s leisure and hospitality sector. The chart below shows employment (on the left axis) and average hourly earnings (on the right axis) in leisure and hospitality since 1990. (Average hourly earnings are only available starting in 2007.) For the most part, this is what we would expect to see. Employment has grown with interruptions in the early 1990s recession, the Great Recession and the COVID recession. Average hourly earnings fell during the Great Recession and recovered afterwards. So far, so good.

Now let’s zero in on the last two years. The chart below shows the monthly employment in the sector for both 2019 and 2020. (Data for December 2020 is preliminary.)

In the first two months of 2020, Maryland’s leisure and hospitality sector was on pace to have 2-3% more jobs than in 2019. Then the pandemic hit and in April 2020, employment was 47% less than in April 2019. The sector recovered somewhat though it did not enjoy the summer bump that it normally gets. By November and December, when COVID case rates began to rise again, the sector began losing jobs again. Overall, its employment in 2020 seems tied to public health restrictions and consumer behavior tied to the virus.

Now let’s look at monthly average hourly earnings in the sector in 2019 and 2020.

The massive job loss in April coincided with a massive spike in average hourly earnings. The smaller job loss in the last two months of the year coincided with a smaller spike in average hourly earnings. At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make much sense if you remember supply and demand from Economics 101.

But it might make sense depending on who gets laid off. The leisure and hospitality sector, like other sectors, has wide variations between employees in skill, seniority and responsibility – all of which tend to be associated with pay differentials. What if the workers who were laid off in April and in the winter were disproportionately low tenure, less skilled and non-supervisory? And what if the workers who were protected were disproportionately highly skilled, high tenure, supervisory and critical to their employers? That would explain the pattern in leisure and hospitality and in the other sectors too: job losses coincide with average hourly earnings spikes because lower paid workers are the ones being let go, thus skewing the wage distribution upwards.

This coincides with findings cited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that job losses have been “strongly concentrated among low-wage workers,” including hospitality workers, young workers, less educated workers and part-time workers. One article finds that “the pandemic’s negative economic effects are most severe and likely to be longest lasting for low-paid workers in more affluent locations.” That’s a good description of the realities faced by many recession-impacted workers in Maryland, who are hit both by job losses and high costs of living. Think of how this applies to a laid-off restaurant employee in Montgomery, Howard or Anne Arundel counties.

If this theory is true, then the rising average wages during the COVID recession are not a sign of prosperity – they’re a sign of rampant, increasing income inequality. In Part Four, we will see how this is playing out in some locations in Maryland.

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part One, we recited a central lesson from Economics 101: wages are prices affected by supply and demand for labor. In prior recessions, wages either stagnated or fell – a result we would expect as jobs declined and hiring opportunities fell short of available workers. However, the COVID recession has seen one of the biggest average wage increases in the last half century.

Why?

One key to understanding this is to examine how the COVID recession has impacted specific industries. The chart below shows the decline in employment from 2019 to 2020 by industrial sector in Maryland. (Data for December 2020 is preliminary, which may have a minimal impact on the final results due from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in a month or two.)

Every industrial sector in Maryland has lost jobs in 2020 except for mining, logging and construction, which actually grew by 2%. This sector is dominated by construction and employers in that industry were likely building a lot of projects that were approved before the pandemic or in its early stages. The sector that took the biggest hit by far was leisure and hospitality, which is comprised of hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, casinos, museums, performing arts, sports and related industries. That makes sense. These industries were among the most affected by health restrictions and they have suffered mightily from declines in travel and tourism.

Now let’s look at the average hourly earnings in these sectors in 2020.

Leisure and hospitality, which had by far the biggest job hit, was also the lowest paying sector in Maryland. When the lowest paying sector loses the greatest percentage of jobs, it skews the overall distribution of wages upward, thereby increasing the average. Also contributing to this skew is that financial activities and professional and business services, the two highest paying sectors, had below average rates of job loss. The jobs that are being lost are disproportionately in lower paying industries. That’s one reason why average wages are rising in the COVID recession unlike in earlier recessions.

But industrial impact is not the only factor behind what’s going on. We will have more in Part Three.

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Myth Buster: Grocery Store Alcohol Sales Will Not Destroy Package Stores

By Adam Pagnucco.

For many years, most grocery stores in Montgomery County have not been allowed to sell beer and wine, a prohibition designed to protect package stores. Most other counties in Maryland have similar rules, all set down in state law. Delegate Lily Qi has introduced a state bill loosening such restrictions, one of many efforts over the years to allow grocery stores to sell beer and wine. When the county council met to consider whether to support Qi’s bill, some council members expressed concern that it would harm small beer and wine stores. After all, if consumers could purchase beer and wine at a grocery store along with food, how could package stores compete with that?

In fact, the allegation that grocery stores would put package stores out of business if they could sell alcohol is a myth. Why do I say that?

Because there are a few grocery stores in MoCo that are allowed to sell beer and wine and package stores operate near them.

Consider the following six MoCo grocery stores that have off premise liquor licenses. Look at the maps below to see how close they are to package stores. Both the grocery stores and the package stores appear in purple ovals.

Giant Supermarket, 11221 New Hampshire Ave, Silver Spring

White Oak Convenience Store, which has an off-premise liquor license, is directly behind the only Giant in the county that is allowed to sell liquor.

Safeway Supermarket, 3333 Spartan Rd, Olney

Young Gourmet Beer and Wine, which has an off-premise license, is just a few blocks away from the only Safeway in the county that is allowed to sell liquor. Brew Belly and Olney Beer and Wine, which can sell alcohol both on premise and off, are also nearby.

Bestway Supermarket, 8540 Piney Branch Rd, Silver Spring

Flower Deli, which has an off premise license, is right around the corner from Bestway. Long Branch Beer and Wine is just a few blocks to the east.

Sniders Super Foods, 1936 Seminary Rd, Silver Spring

Sniders is within walking distance of two package stores: Seminary Beer and Wine and Spring Beer and Wine.

Dawson’s Market, 225 N. Washington St, Rockville

Dawson’s is within walking distance of Tiger Beer, Wine and Deli, which has an off premise license.

Shalom Kosher, 1361 Lamberton Dr, Silver Spring

Shalom Kosher is within footsteps of Kemp Mill Beer, Wine and Deli. The Google photo below shows just how close the grocery store is to the beer and wine store.

The allegation that allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine will put package stores out of business is a MYTH. And now this myth is BUSTED.

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Why Are Average Wages Increasing During the Pandemic? Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Every college student taking Economics 101 learns about how supply and demand interact to set market prices. Wages are prices set in labor markets. When growth in demand for labor exceeds growth in supply, wages go up as employers bid against each other to hire workers. When the opposite occurs – growth in supply exceeds growth in demand – wages fall as workers compete for a limited number of job opportunities. That’s how it’s supposed to work according to theory, and that’s how it has worked (more or less) in prior business cycles.

But so far, that’s apparently NOT how it has worked during the COVID recession. Why?

First, let’s look at history. The chart below shows average real hourly earnings (in 2020 dollars) for U.S. private sector production workers from 1964 to 2020. Besides the flat U shape, you can see how wage increases moderated during certain periods, like the early 1970s, the early 1980s and the early 2010s. That makes sense since those were periods of recession. Jobs were lost, hiring demand was down and that put downward pressure on wages.

The chart below shows the change in average real hourly earnings and brings out the contrasts shown above even more. Big drops in real wages occurred during the oil embargo recessions of the 1970s and early 1980s and a smaller drop occurred during the Great Recession. Again, this is what we expect to see.

But now look at 2020, the year of the awful COVID recession. Preliminary data indicates that real hourly earnings actually rose by 3.7%, the third HIGHEST real increase on record since 1964. (The two higher ones were 4.0% in 1972 and 3.7% in 2009, both peak years immediately prior to recessions.) Everybody knows there have been job losses during the COVID recession so why are average wages going up?

We’ll have more in Part Two.

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What Climate Emergency?

By Adam Pagnucco.

On December 9, 2017, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.” The resolution stated, “Climate change will cause an increase in water and food shortages, civil unrest, state failure, civil war and terrorism throughout the world, with no region or nation being immune to these effects, including Montgomery County.” It went on to state, “We must together implement a massive emergency global mobilization effort to successfully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Each of us has the moral duty to safeguard the planet for future generations.”

A climate emergency. Merriam-Webster defines an emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action” or “an urgent need for assistance or relief.” Consider the following three matters and then decide if the county is acting like there is a climate “emergency.”

Closing the Dickerson Incinerator

In December 2016, the county’s incinerator in Dickerson was the site of an enormous, 85-foot tall trash fire that required hundreds of fire fighters to put out. It later emerged that the plant had 105 days of unscheduled outages between March and October of 2016, forcing the county to divert tens of thousands of tons of trash. Council Member Marc Elrich, one of the lead sponsors of the council’s climate emergency resolution, promised to close the incinerator when he was running for county executive. In January 2018, he tweeted, “And I’m preparing legislation to create a plan to transition us away from the incinerator so we can close it when our contract expires in 2022.”

But there were two problems. First, outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett extended the incinerator contract with its private sector operator right before leaving office. However, the contract allows the county to buy its way out. The second and bigger problem was that neither Elrich nor the county had any alternative plan for what to do with the waste if the incinerator was closed. Elrich told Bethesda Beat four months after taking office: “I’m gonna phase it out when I can phase it out. But people have to remember that I didn’t say I was gonna shut it down until we had a plan for dealing with the waste… So I’m not shutting it down until we figure out how we’re gonna figure out how we’re gonna increase the amount of recycling.” Elrich later told the Washington Post, “If I can’t do it by 2022, then 2026 gives me four more years… I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22. I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it. As long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

All of this happened almost two years ago. The incinerator still operates today. As for the promised legislation in 2018 to transition away from the incinerator, it was never introduced.

Climate Planning

In response to the council’s climate emergency resolution, a workgroup of county government, Park and Planning and MCPS collaborated on a 55-page report in 2018 containing more than 100 policy options for a “decarbonized future.” That was just the beginning.

Next, Elrich convened a 222-member transition team to prepare a comprehensive report to guide his new administration. The environmental team was comprised of one captain, two facilitators, three recorders and 25 members. They analyzed greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and code enforcement and issued 16 specific recommendations. (One of them was to “eliminate incineration.”)

The transition team’s report did not lead to a flood of legislation but rather to five climate workgroups with 150 people. The county hired a consultant to assist them and budgeted $400,000 in both FY20 and FY21 to pay for “climate change planning.” The workgroups issued 850 recommendations in a 96-page report. (Once again, one of the recommendations was to “eliminate incineration.”)

This was followed by a 235-page climate action plan released in December. One of Elrich’s staffers told Maryland Matters, “It is the shared responsibility of the county council and the county executive to take the next steps and come up with legislative packages based on the recommended climate actions.”

As of this writing, no legislation has been introduced to advance the recommendations of the climate action plan since its publication. Compare this record to that of former Council Member Roger Berliner, who back in 2014 introduced 11 bills and 2 zoning text amendments on the environment ON THE SAME DAY. (All but two bills passed.) But the county did rename its Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee as the Climate, Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee, so there is that.

Solar Energy in the Agricultural Reserve

Solar energy is a frequent topic of the county’s environmental planning. The executive’s transition team recommended, “Electrify everything and exclusively use solar and wind energy.” The climate workgroups recommended, “Evaluate environmental and ecological impact of using land in the agricultural reserve for solar” and “Establish demonstration projects to co-locate PV solar with agricultural production (such as grazing) and pollinator meadows.” The climate action plan mentions the word “solar” 184 times although it takes no position as to whether it should be installed in the agricultural reserve. The report does call for a transition to 100% renewable production of electricity by 2030, of which solar is one component. Presumably, enough space must be designated for solar use to achieve the scale sufficient to meet that goal.

In January 2020, Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker introduced Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, which allowed solar panels on a maximum of 1,800 acres in the 101,500-acre agricultural reserve. This set off a firestorm, resulting in four committee sessions, two full council sessions, three different news releases concerning “additional stakeholder engagement,” a town hall event, a poll showing 69% support for the legislation among MoCo voters and countless blast emails from feuding environmental groups on opposite sides of the issue. All of this took a year before the council’s votes to add amendments on soil restrictions and review requirements prompted one solar generator to terminate its projects in the county and caused the solar industry to push for the legislation’s defeat. In the end, if the zoning text amendment passes in its current form, it seems likely that no solar panels will be installed in the reserve unless the council members go up there with tool boxes and do it themselves.

There is an upside. The county won’t be getting the 300 megawatts of solar power allowed by the original version of the above zoning text amendment but it will be installing 6 megawatts of solar power at a Gaithersburg landfill.

Climate emergency? What climate emergency?

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Hucker: MoCo Will Expand its EITC

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker has responded to our post from yesterday asking whether the county will match the state’s expansion of its earned income tax credit (EITC). The short version of Hucker’s response: hell yeah!

Yesterday, Hucker wrote on Facebook:

“Will MoCo Match the State’s Earned Income Tax Credit?” The answer is Yes, I believe Montgomery County will expand the County EITC to provide additional, targeted relief to our suffering working families.

I’ve asked CE Marc Elrich to add these matching county funds to the FY22 budget. And I believe my colleagues will agree. This follows the good news that the MD House Democrats improved the State relief package that our MDReliefNow.com coalition had advocated for by expanding the MD EITC.

The EITC is one of the most effective, targeted anti-poverty programs available to us, and expanding it during this historic recession is highly appropriate & urgent.

Hucker has a point on this: if the county executive puts the funding to expand the EITC in his recommended budget (due next month), it’s inconceivable that the council would cut it. And Elrich was both a co-sponsor and an unwavering supporter of restoring the EITC when the council passed legislation to do that in 2013.

Thanks to Tom Hucker for his advocacy on this issue and his work for broader relief for recession-impacted Marylanders.

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Gino Celebrates Big Win on Pay

By Adam Pagnucco.

MCGEO President Gino Renne has sent out a blast email to his MoCo government members celebrating his new agreement on pay increases. Gino is right to celebrate because overall, both the COVID pay he negotiated and the new deal constitute a huge win for labor.

Let’s go back to May 2020. Facing a budget-ravaging pandemic, the county council voted down compensation increases contained in the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by MCGEO, the fire fighters and the police, the three unions who together represent MoCo employees. Those agreements contained $28 million in FY21 compensation increases, amounting to $38 million on an annualized basis. Labor was outraged and proceeded to picket the home of Council Member Hans Riemer, who was particularly vocal in abrogating the agreements.

But just a month before, the unions negotiated COVID pay agreements with County Executive Marc Elrich that provided far more than their abrogated contracts. The county eventually paid out more than $80 million in accordance with those agreements, greatly exceeding the $400,917 spent by Park and Planning and more than double the cost of the unions’ rejected contracts. And as the price for agreeing to let COVID pay end, Gino negotiated a 3.5% service increment, a 1.5% general wage adjustment and longevity pay which, on an annualized basis, should deliver tens of millions more for his members. Plus he can negotiate even more pay increases for FY22.

Gino and Marc Elrich in March 2017.

This was a master clinic on negotiating strategy, a colossal win for the unions and another story adding to Gino’s legend. We reprint his blast email below.

*****

From: UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO info@mcgeo.org
Subject: [External] Montgomery County Members | Breaking News – Local 1994, FOP 35, IAFF 1664 & County Executive Reach Agreement on FY 21 Compensation Package and COVID Differentials
Reply-To: info info@mcgeo.org

[Action Alert]

Breaking News – Local 1994, FOP 35, IAFF 1664 & County Executive Reach Agreement on FY 21 Compensation Package and COVID Differentials

The CARES act which provided funding for local government operations during the pandemic ended December 31, 2020. When the CARES act ended, the county became responsible for all costs, to include COVID differential pay. Since January 1, the County Council has insisted that our COVID differential pay end immediately and they planned to pass a resolution to end it this past week. The differential was bargained between Local 1994 and the County Executive for the additional risk assumed during the pandemic. The three county government unions, FOP Lodge 35, IAFF Local 1664 and Local 1994, engaged the County Executive and members of the Council to voice our concerns over their attempt to end COVID differential pay, and reminded them that increments and general wage adjustments were not funded for FY21.

After multiple meetings with the County Executive and members of the Council, we agreed to a FY21 GWA of 1.5% to begin in the last pay period of June 2021 and a service increment and longevity step to those eligible consistent with the MCGEO Collective Bargaining Agreement. The service and longevity increases will be effective April 11, 2021, for those who missed their increment or longevity step between July 1, 2020, and April 11, 2021. Members who are eligible between April 12 and June 30 will receive their FY21 increments and longevity step on the date due.

Now that the Council has assured the County Executive and the Unions that a GWA and increments will be funded before the end of the fiscal year, effective tomorrow (2/14/2021), the COVID differential pay will end. Although we know that the COVID differential was not nearly enough money to assume the risk of a deadly pandemic, it helped to make working in these conditions bearable. Understand, Montgomery County employees received the highest COVID differential pay in the DMV, if not the nation. Other local jurisdictions who provided a COVID hazard pay ended it months ago. In the event a new stimulus package includes money for a hazard pay, we will be back to the bargaining table with the executive on your behalf.

As always, your best interests and the interests of your union brothers and sisters are paramount. Take care of one another.

In Solidarity,

Gino Renne

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Will MoCo Match the State’s Earned Income Tax Credit?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last week, Maryland Matters reported that the House of Delegates attached a large expansion of the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) to Governor Larry Hogan’s pandemic relief bill. That’s good news for working class people in Maryland. It’s also complicated news for Montgomery County’s leadership.

That’s because MoCo is one of the few local jurisdictions in the nation that has a local EITC. The county’s EITC is tied to the state’s by county law. If the state’s EITC grows, so might MoCo’s.

MoCo’s EITC (called the Working Families Income Supplement) was first proposed in 1999 by then-County Executive Doug Duncan. Freshman Council Member Phil Andrews had introduced living wage legislation for county contractor employees that Duncan opposed, so Duncan came up with an alternative package including a county EITC. In the end, the county council passed both the living wage law and the EITC and both remain on the books today.

The county EITC was originally specified to provide a 100% match for the state EITC. So if a tax filer obtained a $500 credit from the state, the filer could also obtain a $500 credit from the county. That framework prevailed until the county got into budget trouble during the Great Recession. In 2010, the council passed legislation decoupling the county EITC from the state EITC and making it subject to whatever appropriation the council wanted to pass for it. By FY12, the EITC’s value had shrunk to 68.9% of the state’s credit. In 2013, Council Member Hans Riemer introduced a bill phasing in a restoration of the county EITC to 100% of the state’s EITC, which passed. (Disclosure: I was Riemer’s chief of staff at the time.)

The county code now contains the following language on setting the level of the county EITC.

Sec. 20-79. Amount of Supplement.

(a) Subject to subsection (b), the amount of the Working Families Income Supplement paid to each recipient must equal the amount of any refund the recipient receives from the State earned income credit program.

(b) The Council may approve a different amount in the annual operating budget by an affirmative vote of at least five Councilmembers.

According to Maryland Matters, the value of the state’s EITC is set to increase by a range of 28% to 45% for three years. Under current county law, the county’s EITC “must” match it unless the county council decides differently. Whether the county’s EITC rises too depends on whether the county executive remembers to put it in his recommended budget and whether the council votes to approve it.

Needless to say, this is a very big deal for MoCo’s working class residents.

Among its many virtues, the EITC is well suited to the unique circumstances of the COVID recession. Consider this recession’s quintessential victim: the payroll employee who is laid off and now works in the gig economy to make ends meet. What assistance program is best targeted to help this person? Unemployment benefits might help but they have eligibility requirements and limited duration. Assistance to the employer might help but only if the worker is rehired. Rental assistance might help but only if the worker knows to apply for it and only if the landlord wants to accept it. (Some don’t.) Language barriers and outreach issues are further complications.

In contrast, anyone who files an income tax return can claim the EITC. It applies to all earned income, not just to payroll income. No new program needs to be set up, no bureaucrats need to be hired and no federal grants need to be administered. The county already has a volunteer income tax assistance program to help low and moderate income county residents claim it. And because we are in tax season, the timing is right for the EITC to put money into the pockets of those who need it right away. According to the comptroller’s office, electronic filers can get their refunds a few days after they file returns. Compare that to the weeks and sometimes months required to process and disburse county grant applications.

There is one drawback: the EITC costs money. In FY21, the county budgeted $20 million to pay it. If MoCo matches the proposed state increase, the county might have to pay an extra $6-9 million a year for three years. That doesn’t sound like much in a nearly $6 billion county budget, but the county does have revenue pressures and a new whopping $100 million a year liability in COVID emergency pay.

Tough times require tough choices. Workers who have seen their incomes plummet during the pandemic know that better than anyone. Expanding the EITC is one of the best ways to target assistance to them in their time of need. Will MoCo leaders make the tough budget choices to help them?

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Once Again, Who’s the Boss?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Back in December, I wrote a column titled “Who’s the Boss?” in which I noted an extremely unusual event. It concerned MC 4-21, a local bill by Delegate Vaughn Stewart that enables – but does not mandate – the county to transfer administration of speed cameras from the police department to the transportation department. County Executive Marc Elrich and the county council support the bill. As elected officials, they get to set the positions of the county government on legislation and other important matters. County employees are then charged with implementing the policies decided by elected officials. That’s how government is supposed to work.

But that’s not how it worked in December, as representatives of the police department argued against the bill in a hearing before the county’s state legislators in open defiance of the executive, who the voters elected to be their boss. Multiple state legislators told me they had not witnessed something like that before. In the wake of my writing the column, I thought that the executive or his top lieutenants would crack heads and establish some discipline.

I thought wrong. Yesterday, it happened again. When the same bill (now listed as HB 564) was heard by the House Environment and Transportation Committee, once again an MCPD officer testified against it. The officer was Thomas Didone, who had also argued against it in December. Didone told the committee that he was appearing “as a Montgomery County resident and a traffic safety advocate for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Highway Safety Committee.” However, Didone is a lot more than that – he is an Assistant Chief and head of the police department’s Field Services Bureau. He is also a political appointee of the county executive, having been confirmed by the council in April, 2020. Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the executive.

Didone, bottom left, prepares to testify against a bill the county executive supports.

Didone absolutely trashed the bill, telling the committee, “Simply stated, this is bad policy based on emotions and not facts. Bad policy is bad and should not be considered.” Didone proceeded to tell the committee about how county police administer traffic cameras, demonstrating that he is no mere county resident.

Set aside the merits or lack thereof of the bill. What happened here was AMAZING. A political appointee of the county executive’s appeared in front of a House of Delegates committee and testified against a bill supported by the executive not once but TWICE. Ike Leggett would never have tolerated it. Doug Duncan would have… well, there are things too gruesome to be printed on a family-friendly blog like Seventh State!

Council Members Andrew Friedson and Hans Riemer picked up on this, writing a letter to Elrich asking him to get control of his staff. It’s true that Elrich has problems with the police department that have been exacerbated by his task force on reimagining the police. It’s also frankly irrelevant. Senior county managers don’t work for themselves. They work to implement policies established by elected officials who are accountable to voters. Elrich needs to assert his authority as the elected leader of the executive branch. If he does not, there will be chaos in Rockville.

The letter from Friedson and Riemer is reprinted below.

*****

February 12, 2021

County Executive Marc Elrich
101 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor
Rockville, MD 20850

County Executive Elrich,

The County Executive and Council have voiced their support for House Bill 564, local enabling legislation that would allow the County to move administration of the automated traffic enforcement program from Montgomery County Police to the Department of Transportation. In light of the County’s official position, you can understand the surprise and confusion created by the leader of the automated traffic enforcement program testifying in firm opposition to House Bill 564 on December 17 before the County Delegation’s Land Use Committee and on February 11 before the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

In his testimony, Assistant Chief Tom Didone said that moving the automated traffic enforcement program is “bad policy” and that the sponsoring legislators and those in County government who support it have done so “based on emotion and not fact.” His allegation is incorrect and appeared to create confusion about the County government’s true position among members of the Committee considering the bill – and understandably so.

Put aside for the moment that we continue to support the policy that House Bill 564 would enable on policy grounds. We believe moving the administration of automated traffic enforcement to the Department of Transportation is a more effective approach to reaching our Vision Zero goal by decreasing the speeding that leads to and causes deaths and severe injuries on our roadways. We also believe, consistent with the recommendations from your Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, that relying more on automated traffic enforcement will support our shared efforts to reduce bias in traffic enforcement. We welcome continued dialogue on the merit of this concept and look forward to exploring criticism of the policy, including by those with direct knowledge of the administration of the program.

We will be unable to have that discussion in any serious way if the concept is not allowed in State law. Unfortunately, the member of the Executive Branch staffed with leading the automated traffic enforcement program is advocating and lobbying against our ability to have that full public debate, despite our support.

This appears to have made approval of the enabling state legislation more difficult and such activity threatens to undercut the formal support from County elected leadership for any enabling bills before the General Assembly that impact our County. As County Executive, surely you do not want Executive Branch staff contradicting your own position. We ask that you work with members of the Executive Branch to get their expertise, their insight, and their concerns about any proposed policy in a manner that is more appropriate and respectful of our responsibility to represent the public and the standard procedures the County uses to weigh in on State legislation.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Andrew Friedson
Councilmember, District 1

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-Large

CC: Richard Madaleno, Chief Administrative Officer
Melanie Wenger, Director, Office of Intergovernmental Relations
Marcus Jones, Chief, Montgomery County Police
Tom Didone, Assistant Chief, Montgomery County Police
Chris Conklin, Director, Department of Transportation
Delegate Marc Korman, Chair, Montgomery County Delegation
Delegate Kumar Barve, Chair, House Environment and Transportation Committee
Delegate Vaughn Stewart

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