By Adam Pagnucco.
The tax hike is the part of the budget that is getting the most attention, but the County Council took another unusual step: it refused to fund part of the county employees’ collective bargaining agreements. Labor has taken notice.
Salary increases in the county’s collective bargaining agreements are comprised of three main components. First, there is a general wage adjustment that all employees receive. Second, there is a service increment, also called a step increase, that employees who are not at the top of the salary scale for their classification receive. Third, there is a longevity increment that is received only by employees who are at the top of their scale and have completed twenty years of service. All of these items, along with many others, are negotiated by the three county employee unions (MCGEO, the Fire Fighters and the Police) and the Executive and codified in collective bargaining agreements. The agreements then go to the council, which can decide to fund all, some, or no items that create economic costs.
During the Great Recession, the employees received no raises of any kind in Fiscal Years 2011, 2012 and 2013. Afterwards, the unions negotiated for and received general wage adjustments, steps and longevity increments as well as “make-up steps.” The latter were intended to compensate the employees for steps they did not receive during the recession. The unions won make-up steps in Fiscal Years 2014, 2015 and 2017 (this year’s budget) with the exception of the Fire Fighters this year. During these years, the combined general wage adjustments, steps and make-up steps ranged from 6.8% to 9.8% per year.
This year, the council approved MCPS’s funding increase on the condition that some of the money scheduled to fund MCPS employees’ raises be instead redirected to hire teachers and other staff. The school board agreed. In order to maintain equity between MCPS employees and county employees, the council insisted that the county unions give up some of their raises and primarily targeted their make-up steps. The council refused to fund eight items in the collective bargaining agreements which together totaled $4.1 million in savings in Fiscal Year 2017, leaving the unions with raises of 4.5 percent. Only Council Member Marc Elrich voted with the unions.
The county unions were outraged. MCGEO, the largest of them, published a scathing response on its website, blasting the council as “hypocrites” who engage in “public manipulation in order to achieve what looks like sound fiscal management while achieving nothing.” The council had approved make-up steps and total salary increases of 6.8-9.8% in both 2014 and 2015, so what had changed now? The difference is that few people were paying attention in those two years because a tax hike was not on the table. Now that a large tax hike was being considered, big raises were not politically feasible. Hence MCGEO’s anger.
Justified or not, the council had achieved $4.1 million in savings by trimming employee salary increases. That money could have been used to reduce the property tax increase, but that’s not what happened. Why not? We will have more in Part Five.