Category Archives: Nancy Floreen

A Reply to Nancy Floreen on MCPS Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

Thanks to Council Member Nancy Floreen for writing about MCPS funding in recent years in response to my blog post.  First, a note of appreciation.  While we may disagree about MCPS, we agree wholeheartedly on the issue of economic growth, which is the anchor for the county budget.  The political winds on growth shift back and forth in county politics over the decades, but Floreen has consistently pushed an economic development agenda.  She was for jobs before jobs were cool!  All the things the county has done right in economic development – and there have been a few of them – have Floreen’s fingerprints all over them.  It’s one reason why your author admires her and is sad to see her leave the County Council.

Let’s begin with areas of agreement.  First, Floreen is absolutely right about the terrible days of the Great Recession.  The county had not faced anything like it since the 1930s.  Everything had to go on the table in those days – spending cuts, layoffs, furloughs, broken collective bargaining agreements and an energy tax hike – because the alternative was default.  Floreen was Council President in 2010, the worst year of the recession.  She, the County Executive and her colleagues saved the county from fiscal disaster.  That achievement should not be forgotten.

Second, Floreen mentions the state’s teacher pension shift as a stress point on county finances.  Again, she’s absolutely right.  For many years, the state’s payment of teacher pension benefits was the one state program that disproportionately benefited Montgomery County.  That’s because our high cost of living as well as our prioritization of schools leads us to pay higher teacher salaries than the rest of the state, which results in higher pensions.  In 2010, nearly all of MoCo’s state legislators running for election promised not to shift pension costs to the counties.  But in 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley pushed a plan to do exactly that and most of our state legislators voted for it.  The result is that Montgomery County pays roughly $60 million a year for teacher pensions now, more than any jurisdiction in the state.  Compare that to the size of last year’s property tax hike, which was $140 million a year.  No matter what is said about the county, the state should not be let off the hook.

Now to the areas of disagreement.  It’s interesting that Floreen says our blog post is misleading but does not actually refute any of the data on which we rely.  She simply picks other data and disagrees with our characterizations.  We are sympathetic to her problem: it’s hard to refute data that happens to be true!  One thing she contests is our choice of FY10 as a base year for comparison.  We picked FY10 because it was the peak year of overall county spending before the Great Recession fully kicked in.  So comparing FY10 to FY16, the year before the tax hike, is valid because it’s a peak-to-peak comparison that includes both the cuts to departments in the early part of the period as well as the restoration that occurred afterwards.

She also disagrees repeatedly with our referring to MCPS as going through austerity.  Our basis for doing so was the county’s local dollar spending per pupil, which comes from county budget documents and was not contested by Floreen.  In nominal terms, here is the county’s local spending per pupil from FY06 through FY17.

The data shows that the county cut its local per pupil contribution to MCPS for three straight years and froze it for four straight years.  This period greatly exceeds the length of the Great Recession.  The local per pupil contribution went up after last year’s property tax increase.

Last year’s per pupil bump looks significant, but here is the same data adjusted by the Washington-Baltimore CPI and presented in real terms using 2017 dollars.  (We estimated 2017 inflation at 2.02%, the average rate of the preceding years in the chart.)  Clearly, even with the tax hike, the county’s local-dollar commitment to schools is not what it once was.  And the CPI underestimates major cost drivers for the schools, such as the costs of serving rising numbers of students who live in poverty and need language services.

Floreen then talks about the county departments that were cut during the recession.  She’s right: they were cut.  But after the recession ended, most of them were restored to levels exceeding what they were before the recession.  Meanwhile, county dollars for MCPS were cut by $33 million between FY10 and FY16.  Floreen doesn’t deny that, but she notes that local dollars aren’t the only source for MCPS’s budget.  The schools get plenty of state money too.  Floreen says this:

What really matters is the total MCPS budget, not the State share versus the local share. The higher State spending for MCPS in recent years reflects that the State’s funding formulas, at long last, are starting to recognize our students’ actual needs, as shown in our higher ESOL and FARMS populations. The State aid increases, which were long overdue, enabled us to provide continued strong support for MCPS during the Great Recession without further decimating every other function of government.  Why is that not a good thing?

Floreen is conceding a central point of our original post which is reinforced in the per pupil data above: the county depended on state aid to keep MCPS afloat while it restricted its own contributions to the school system.  Meanwhile, MCPS enrollment grew from 140,500 to 156,514 between FY10 and FY16, an 11% increase.  The Great Recession by itself can’t be cited as a justification for restricting county dollars for schools because the restrictions continued long after the trough of the recession had passed.  Indeed, fifteen other counties increased their local per pupil contributions after the recession ended, including nine controlled by Republicans.  The message here is, “The state was paying for our schools so we didn’t have to increase county per pupil spending on them.”  Is that “continued strong support for MCPS” as claimed above?  Is it satisfactory for parents and voters?  Let the readers decide.

Finally, Floreen repeats her longstanding point that last year’s 9% property tax hike was intended to support MCPS.  That’s true: MCPS did get a big share of that money.  But so did the rest of the government.  Last year, we laid out how the county could have cut the tax hike in half, still given MCPS all the money requested in the County Executive’s budget and done it without spending cuts to other agencies.  County Executive Ike Leggett, who originally proposed the tax hike, asked the council to cut the rate increase in half after the General Assembly passed a law easing the county’s liability from a U.S. Supreme Court decision on income taxes.  But the council chose to keep every penny of the original tax hike and spread it across every agency instead.  That’s not an Education First budget – it’s an Everything First budget.  The result of the tax hike was a tremendous boost for the 40-point triumph of term limits at the ballot box.  Even the council’s own spokesman at the time now says the tax hike was unnecessary and is vowing to stop another one if he is elected to Floreen’s open seat.

Look folks.  We get this is tough medicine.  We understand that elected officials don’t like to be criticized, especially around election time.  And we understand that Nancy Floreen, a Council Member we respect, would like to go out on top.  But it’s important to understand the past to prepare for the future.  The schools need small, steady increases in per pupil funding to deal with their challenges.  There can no longer be wild swings between extended periods of per pupil cuts and freezes followed by huge tax hikes intended to undo the effects of those cuts and freezes.  To fund MCPS fairly without raising taxes, the county will have to restrain the overall growth of the rest of the budget to pay for it.  There cannot be any more Everything First budgets.  With four Council Members leaving and the Executive race wide open, it will be up to the next generation of county officials to chart a better way forward.

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Setting the Record Straight on MCPS Funding

By Council Member Nancy Floreen.

Adam Pagnucco’s recent post on the County Council’s budgeting work made an astoundingly misleading claim: “The County imposed seven years of austerity on MCPS [in FY10-16] while lavishing double-digit increases on nearly every other function of government.”  While I ordinarily ignore this kind of online misrepresentation of Council activity, this goes too far over the top to let pass.

As Council President in 2016, I plead guilty to leading the charge for two tax hikes to support MCPS.  The FY17 property tax hike enabled us to reduce class size and focus on the achievement gap; we exceeded the State-required Maintenance of Effort level (MOE) for the MCPS operating budget by $89 million.  The recordation tax hike enabled us to fund key school construction projects that would otherwise have languished.  We did this in a historic partnership with the Board of Education, which agreed to channel more of its funds to the classroom, and, bravely, less to employee compensation.

Were the preceding seven years really a period of “austerity” for MCPS and “lavish” times for others?  Consider the facts.

1. The choice of base years matters. FY10 was an anomaly. From FY01-09, we had funded MCPS at a total of $576 million ABOVE the MOE level, thus creating a much higher required spending base.  But no good deed goes unpunished.  When revenues sank like a stone during the Great Recession, this higher base became an impossible burden, even after we approved a property tax increase in FY09.

2. During the worst years of the recession, FY09-12, only two agencies – MCPS and Montgomery College – saw increased funding. To be sure, the increases were small (1.8 and 3.2 percent, respectively) and relied on higher State aid. But during this same period, vital County functions like Police, Fire and Rescue, and HHS were down 3.4, 5.0, and 14.7 percent, respectively.  Recreation was down 23.5 percent, and Libraries was down 29.2 percent.  These deep cuts were without precedent.  The new spending base we were forced to create was so low that any later increase seemed disproportionately large.  We consistently prioritized funding for MCPS and the College during this period.  As the Rolling Stones would say, they didn’t get what they wanted, but they got what they needed. This we could not do for the rest of County government.  I was Council President in that awful time.  There were furloughs for all County employees, including first responders.  MCPS furloughed no one.

3. The “austerity” claim fails to account for massive additional County funding for MCPS that is not included in the MCPS budget or in MOE.  So, for example, in FY18, we approved total expenditures for MCPS that include $2.37 billion for the MCPS operating budget PLUS $317.5 million more in the County budget.  This pays for debt service on school construction bonds, pre-funding MCPS retiree health benefits, support services ranging from Linkages to Learning to crossing guards, and MCPS technology modernization.  In FY13-16 alone, this additional County support totaled $1.08 billion.  These dollars are not technically included in the MCPS budget, but they should be. To put the FY18 additional County support in perspective, this amount is larger than the total FY18 budget for Police, Fire and Rescue, or HHS.  Again, this massive support for MCPS is all ABOVE the MOE level. And not counted.

4. Is the flip side of this alleged “austerity” for MCPS in FY10-16 really “lavishing double-digit increases on nearly every other function of government”?  Tell that to one of our most important and beloved departments, Public Libraries.  The libraries provide our one million-plus residents of all ages (including students from MCPS) with an ever-growing wealth of materials and technology.  But the department’s budget of $40.3 million in FY09 did not reach that level again until FY16, seven years later, even in nominal dollars.  The FY18 level, $42.7 million, is barely equal to FY09 in real dollars. “Lavish” indeed!

5. One key fact is that 90 percent of the MCPS budget is for the salaries and benefits of active and retired employees. MCPS’ benefits cost much more than the County’s. If MCPS’ employee share of health insurance costs was the same as the County’s, the savings would be $24 million.  Add to this the fact we alone in the State fund a supplement to MCPS employees’ State pension benefit. This alone cost $25.3 million last year.  The regular pension cost in FY18 is another $71.8 million, plus $56.8 million more for the State’s shift of teacher pension costs.  We also pick up the tab for pre-funding MCPS retiree health benefits (paid from the County budget, not the MCPS budget).  This set us back $74.2 million in FY18 and is now projected to cost $547.8 million in FY18-23.  Is that what you call “austerity”?

6. What really matters is the total MCPS budget, not the State share versus the local share. The higher State spending for MCPS in recent years reflects that the State’s funding formulas, at long last, are starting to recognize our students’ actual needs, as shown in our higher ESOL and FARMS populations. The State aid increases, which were long overdue, enabled us to provide continued strong support for MCPS during the Great Recession without further decimating every other function of government.  Why is that not a good thing?

7. In fact, a more complete and accurate comparison of FY10-16 tax supported operating budgets by agency shows that MCPS received a 12.9 percent funding increase compared to 13.0 percent for Montgomery County Government, 15.9 percent for Montgomery College, and 8.3 percent for Park and Planning. In addition, a significant portion of the FY10-16 increase of 803.9 percent in pre-funding retiree health benefits and 41.5 percent in debt service benefited MCPS!

As we go into an election year of hyperbole and catchy phrases, know that the Council, on which I have been so privileged to serve, is committed to thoughtful fact and policy based budgets, responsive to ALL our residents’ needs. We are also constantly mindful of the burden that our decisions place on our residents’ pocketbooks.  MCPS will always need more support.  Has it been singled out for unfair treatment – “austerity” for MCPS and “lavish” increases for everyone else?  The facts say otherwise.

Nancy Floreen has served on the Montgomery County Council since 2002.  She was Council President in 2010, during the Great Recession, and again in 2016.

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MCGEO Gets Ready to Rumble

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Monday night, July 11, some MoCo residents received the following robocall.

I’m Tara Huber. I live in Montgomery County and I’m a county worker in child protective services. My job is to protect the vulnerable children in the county and can be very stressful. My job is made even more stressful by the fact that the County under the leadership of Council President Nancy Floreen has failed time and again to give me and my co-workers the right tools to effectively do our jobs. Floreen has mismanaged the county budget to such an extreme that we don’t have enough staff or tools to manage the high case loads. Protect your Montgomery. Call President Floreen at 240-777-7959 and tell her you expect better management of our tax dollars. Paid for by UFCW Local 1994, 600 South Frederick Avenue Gaithersburg Maryland 20877.

This is a new shot fired by MCGEO, the county employee union, in its on-again, off-again conflict with the County Council.  But it’s a risky one that could backfire.

First, some background.  MCGEO has a number of problems with the council, including:

  1. The council’s trimming of employee benefits during the Great Recession.
  1. The council’s vote to end effects bargaining for the police union, which was later upheld by voters.
  1. The council’s vote to cut MCGEO’s raise in half as part of its recently passed budget.
  1. The introduction of legislation by Council President Nancy Floreen that would change collective bargaining procedures in ways that the union claims would weaken its ability to negotiate.

These events and more have caused MCGEO President Gino Renne to tell the Post that his union might support Robin Ficker’s term limits amendment.  And on the night before the hearing on Floreen’s collective bargaining bill, the above robocall went out.  None of this is a coincidence.  Indeed, the union is gearing up for battle.  And no one, whether friend or foe of MCGEO and its fearsome President, has ever claimed that the union backs down when it is under threat.

The problem is that the robocall has little merit and such tactics may provoke the council to do even more against the union’s interest.

Montgomery County has a gigantic Health and Human Services (HHS) budget.  In FY16, HHS had an approved budget of $289 million, with 1,359 full-time positions and 327 part-time positions.  Children, Youth and Family Services, for which the robocall speaker (a MCGEO Vice-President) works, had an FY16 approved budget of $79 million with 525 full-time equivalent positions.

Using FY09 data, your author found that Montgomery County had the biggest HHS budget (along with housing) of any local jurisdiction in Maryland.  On a per capita basis, MoCo spent more than double the state average and lagged only the City of Baltimore.  MoCo spent more than 8 times on HHS and housing than did Prince George’s County.  From FY10 (the peak year prior to the recession) through FY16, MoCo’s HHS budget grew by 13%.  And as for the County Council specifically, it adds millions of dollars on top of the Executive’s recommended budget for HHS every year.  Below is a list of the HHS items added by the council to the Executive’s budget this year, financed with a nine percent increase in property taxes.

HHS Rec List FY17

It’s hard to argue that the council pinches pennies on HHS.  MCGEO has pooh-poohed the tax hike on its website.  What would the union like to see?  Does the council need to raise property taxes by 20% to get its approval?

There is more.  MCGEO is considering supporting term limits for county elected officials.  Fair enough.  The union has some legitimate grievances and any union would fight against a breaking of its collective bargaining agreement.  But let’s remember that the collective bargaining bill detested by MCGEO only had two sponsors at introduction, Nancy Floreen and Craig Rice.  That doesn’t speak well of the bill’s chances under normal circumstances.  But if MCGEO amps up its tactics and really does come out for term limits, could it actually help to recruit votes for Floreen’s bill?  After all, what do term-limited Council Members have to lose?  And let’s not forget that this council will decide on funding two more MCGEO annual compensation packages before the next council is seated.

In May 2011, when the County Council met to pass a budget that included cuts to employee benefits, a group of nine clowns appeared in the audience.  One of them wore a name tag with the first name of the Council President.  The police union refused to admit responsibility but was widely blamed.  Less than two months later, the council voted unanimously to repeal the police union’s right to bargain the effects of management decisions.

What goes around comes around.  Is MCGEO next?

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MoCo’s Giant Tax Hike, Part Five

By Adam Pagnucco.

The untold story about the Giant Tax Hike is that it could have been cut substantially while still maintaining every dime of funding for MCPS in the Executive’s recommended budget.  How could that have been done?

The Executive called for an increase in property taxes of $140 million over the charter limit.  Three sources of savings were available to offset it.  First, Senator Rich Madaleno’s state legislation enabling the county to extend the time necessary to pay tax refunds mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne decision freed up $33.7 million.  Second, the County Council had obtained $4.1 million by not funding some elements of the employees’ collective bargaining agreements.  Third, county agencies other than MCPS were due to receive a combined $36.3 million in extra tax-supported funds in the Executive’s recommended budget.  Using some or all of that money for tax relief would have reduced the tax hike even more.  If all of that money were redirected, the tax hike could have been cut in half with MCPS still getting the entire funding increase in the Executive’s budget.

Instead, the council kept the entire 8.7% property tax hike and distributed $25 million of it throughout the entire county government, as well as its affiliated agencies and partner organizations.  While MCPS may have undergone seven straight years of austerity, most of the other agencies and departments had already received double-digit increases over their pre-recession peak amounts.  This new money was on top of those increases.

Council President Nancy Floreen was very honest about this, writing:

While this is an “education first” budget, it isn’t an “education only” budget. As much as many people care about our outstanding school system, we know that others have different priorities. This budget is very much about those people as well.

This budget provides a much-needed boost to police and fire and rescue services as we will be adding more police officers and firefighters and giving them the equipment they need to continue to make this one the safest counties in America. This budget is about libraries, recreation, parks, the safety net, Montgomery College, and transportation programs that help get people around this county better.

This budget means that no matter where you live in the county, if you call an ambulance, you can count on a life-saving response time. Our police force will now be equipped with body cameras. Potholes will be filled, snow will be plowed, grass in parks and on playing fields will be mowed and trees will get planted in the right-of-way. While our unemployment rate has fallen steadily over the past couple of years, our newly privatized program for economic development promises an even better job market in the future. We are going to help new businesses in their early stages and hope they will remain here once they become successful. We are going to aggressively seek to get established businesses to relocate here and we are going to fight to keep the great businesses of all sizes that already call Montgomery County home. Our avid readers and researchers will appreciate the interim Wheaton Library and extended hours at several branches. And students will have better access to after-school enrichment programs.

As Council President Floreen demonstrates above, this is not so much an Education First budget as it is an Everything First budget, with nearly every department and agency getting a piece of new tax revenues.

Let’s compare what happened this year to what occurred in 2010.  Back then, the county was suffering from the full effects of the Great Recession.  Its reserves were dwindling to zero, revenues were in freefall and its AAA bond rating was on the verge of being downgraded.  The County Council responded by passing a budget with furloughs, layoffs, no raises for employees, a cut in the county’s earned income tax credit, an absolute reduction in spending and a $110 million increase in the energy tax.  Given the dire economic emergency, all options were bad ones, but the council really had no choice.  The cuts and tax hike were forced upon them.

This year, there is a stagnant economy (which we will discuss in Part Six) but no Great Recession.  Reserves are substantial and have been on track to meet the county’s goal of ten percent of revenues.  There is no threat to the bond rating.  And yet, the council chose to pass a $140 million property tax increase – larger than the energy tax hike during the recession – when it could easily have reduced the tax increase, funded MCPS’s needs and not cut any other departments.  But it did not.

Like all big choices, this one will have consequences.  We will explore them in Part Six.

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Air In, Vaping Out in MoCo

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council looks set to pass Council Vice President Nancy Floreen’s bill to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The bill would also prohibit their use where smoking is already not allowed and mandate child-resistant packaging.

Here is Councilmember Floreen’s argument for the bill:

It is hard to keep up with the mounting evidence that electronic cigarettes pose more risks than their marketers would like us to believe, especially for children and teens.

Although electronic cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, they do contain nicotine and other dangerous chemicals. That’s why I introduced a bill in the Montgomery County Council to prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes in public spaces where traditional cigarette smoking is banned, including in public buildings and restaurants. The bill also would prohibit use of electronic cigarettes by minors and would require child-resistant packaging for them.

The use of electronic cigarettes, commonly called “vaping,” has grown dramatically since the product’s introduction in 2007. The practice has become so commonplace that the Oxford Dictionary selected the word “vape” as its 2014 “Word of the Year.”

Perhaps swayed by the belief that electronic cigarettes are safe, or emboldened by the fact that e-cigs have little odor that parents could detect, teens who have never tried traditional cigarettes are using e-cigs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that e-cig use has tripled among teens in just two years. These young people are unwittingly putting themselves at risk for nicotine addiction and nicotine poisoning, as well as potentially graduating to harmful tobacco products.

What exactly is in an electronic cigarette? It is hard to say. In addition to the most common ingredients — propylene glycol, nicotine and flavorings — studies have revealed a lot of unsavory things, like carcinogens, heavy metals and even silicon fibers in some e-cigs. But with 90 percent of electronic cigarettes being manufactured in China, where production lacks even the most basic of regulations, they could contain just about anything.

Many states, including Maryland, prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Municipalities including New York City, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, also have enacted restrictions on their use.

While the Food and Drug Administration is currently considering regulations to address electronic cigarettes, it is not clear when those regulations would be finalized or take effect. In the meantime, I’m not willing to gamble with the health of our current generation of young people. We must put some protections in place, and we must do it now.

Councilmember Floreen makes a good case. It seems very odd that someone can buy vaping materials at a mall kiosk but that cigarettes must be sold behind the counter. If adults want to use these materials, that’s their business. But we shouldn’t facilitate the addiction and the poisoning of people who are not yet legal adults.

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Leventhal Slams CASA

casa logo

The Washington Post reports that dealing with negative impacts of the Purple Line on low-income people is CASA’s biggest priority and the lack of concern with these issues cost incumbent Councilmembers George Leventhal and Nancy Floreen the organization’s support:

CASA ‘s biggest priority in Montgomery at the moment is the Purple Line’s potential threat to affordable housing and minority-owned small businesses in communities such as Long Branch. In CASA’s assessment, they weren’t there with them. . . .

CASA and other groups are worried that gentrification, triggered by escalating real estate values along the route, will price Latinos out of the community.

“George’s perception is that any discussion of equity around the Purple Line undermines its chances of going forward,” Propeack said.

George responded less than tactfully:

“My impression is that they’re trying to insult me,” Leventhal said. He added: “I do think CASA sometimes loses sight of the fact that the primary beneficiaries of the Purple Line will be Latinos. It will be of enormous benefit to workers who will have greater access to jobs. I guess they think transit is bad for communities.”

This quote exhibits George’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. He is fervent in his causes and makes cogent arguments for them. At the same time, he often acts in ways that express disdain for people who disagree with him and build barriers rather than friends. This case is especially telling because of his past very close relationship with CASA and his genuine, strong support for Latinos.

Nancy also made a statement to the reporter:

Floreen said she couldn’t say what happened.

“I have no idea. These are folks with their own agenda. They’re all advocates for something or other.”

Whether you agree with her or not, Nancy is opinionated, informed, and smart as a whip. But when I read this, it sounded like the least sensible quote ever from Nancy Floreen. Of course, they have an agenda. They’re an interest group.

However, interviews are long and quotes are short, so I gave Nancy a call. Her assessment has more sang-froid than George’s:

It’s their assessment of the politics of the situation. I’ve always supported them and their interests in the past and will continue to do so in the future whether or not they endorse me.

Essentially, they’re an interest group with their own goals they will do what they will do. A smart response as it leaves doors open, doesn’t alienate, or give the story more traction.

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