By Adam Pagnucco.
Just like (hopefully) all of you, I am voting in the primary this year. We talk a lot about candidates on Seventh State but not as much about what guides our voting decisions. These are the factors guiding me.
There are two things in my background that weigh heavily on how I evaluate the county and its candidates. First, I’m a native of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in Upstate New York. I admit bias, but these are two of the prettiest places on Planet Earth! From the end of World War II up through the 1980s, this area was relatively prosperous. The three pillars of the economy were agriculture, tourism and manufacturing with the Borscht Belt hotels and IBM acting as anchor employers. Middle class jobs were common from Poughkeepsie through Monticello. But by the end of the 1980s, the Borscht Belt began emptying out and IBM started layoffs a little later, closing its massive Kingston facility in 1994. The area never recovered. At a young age, I learned this lesson: there is no law of economics holding that a prosperous economy will remain prosperous forever.
There is more. In 1989, I was a bell captain at one of those dying Borscht Belt hotels. My crew was composed mostly of adults who lived paycheck to paycheck, so they were seriously put out when the paychecks started bouncing. One Friday during check-in, my crew and I went into the management offices to demand timely payment of VALID checks. When they refused, I led a walkout. I was fired and about half my crew was too. (That was the start of my interest in the labor movement.) Within a couple years, the hotel was closed. The former owners cashed out and moved to Florida. The workers were out of jobs. Here’s another lesson: economic decline doesn’t hurt the rich. They will be just fine. It’s working people who need a strong economy to live decent lives.
My beloved old hotel, the Stevensville Country Club of Swan Lake, NY, in its glory days.
The second relevant thing in my background is that I’m a corporate and economic researcher. When I decided to move out of D.C. fifteen years ago, I picked MoCo because it had so much going for it: enlightened leadership, good schools, nice amenities, high-quality county services, access to transit and a decent economy. But that was then. Here is some of what I have published on Seventh State over the last two years.
1. MoCo has had one of the worst job creation performances in the entire region since 2001. As of 2016, its employment has still not returned to its pre-recession peak. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
2. MoCo’s real per capita personal income took a bigger hit than most of the rest of the region from the Great Recession. (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)
3. The county’s establishment growth is almost last in the region. It lags D.C. and Fairfax by huge amounts. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
4. The outmigration of taxpayer income from the county has hit record levels for the last few years. (Internal Revenue Service)
5. While wage and salary employment is flat, MoCo is creating lots of lower-paying proprietor jobs. Most other jurisdictions in the region are creating both. (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)
6. Despite telling us that the economy is just fine, county leaders have grabbed tens of millions of dollars in health insurance money just to balance the budget two years in a row. That is despite the nine percent property tax hike of two years ago. And where is the money going? Since the recession ended, spending on education and transportation – two huge investment categories of paramount importance to voters – has increased at half the rate of everything else. (Montgomery County budget documents)
Back in Upstate New York in the 1980s, those who were paying attention could see a little weakness. But for the most part, we didn’t understand that we were in the middle of a tipping point. So it is in MoCo. We have enough strength left that a lot of people don’t feel the above trends in their wallets yet, though they did feel the big tax hike and many suffer long commutes to jobs in D.C. and Virginia. Unless Donald Trump is worse than I think he is, the federal government won’t close down like IBM did. But the data does not lie – we are slipping, folks. And that’s a problem because we need strong revenue growth to fund progressive priorities.
The reaction of the governing establishment to the above posts and more has been disappointing. Some have been indifferent. Others have questioned the economic numbers. (I guarantee that the federal economists downtown who produce those numbers have no hidden agenda to make MoCo politicians look bad!) Some have interpreted discussion of this information as primarily an attack on their records. A few even regard it as a personal attack.
Guess what, politicians? It’s not about you – it’s about us. And we need to do better. Luckily, as one of the few jurisdictions in the nation that combines wealth, education, diversity, tolerance, good schools, low crime, a triple-A bond rating and no municipal corruption, there’s nothing we can’t deal with IF we decide to deal with it.
This year, I am only voting for candidates who understand the nature of the above challenges, have specific ideas for coping with them and – fingers crossed! – have the courage and strategic vision to lead us to our full potential.
And if you want a finer county, so should you.