Bitter Tonic in Montgomery

January 21, 1991

Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter has given county workers and school employees a tough choice: forgo scheduled pay hikes or face layoffs. This dilemma could confront government workers throughout the region in the weeks to come. We have reached the pivotal point when speculation about deficits gives way to painful but necessary remedies. This is especially true in Montgomery, where next year's budget gap of $175 million is the largest among Maryland counties.

Even with a salary freeze, Mr. Potter expects to slash 1,041 positions from a work force of 6,600 and a teacher corps of 7,000. About half the slots to be cut are now unfilled; county officials reckon that only 50 employees would actually lose their jobs. There would also be increases in various user fees, including a 1 percent vehicle tax that must be approved by the General Assembly.

State lawmakers aren't enthusiastic about authorizing new taxes and the county's employee and teacher unions are dead-set against giving up negotiated pay hikes. The county's ability to raise revenue is further stymied by a ballot question approved in November capping property tax increases.

Restoring Montgomery's financial health will require difficult, painful treatment. Unions must choose between the catastrophic and the merely unpleasant. Employees can hardly be expected to cheer the prospect of givebacks. But to do less would open the door to a far costlier outcome: Thousands of workers on the streets, crippling cutbacks in county services and the possibility of huge property tax increases.

Mr. Potter is being lambasted by union leaders for reneging on his campaign promise to renegotiate labor contracts only as a "last resort" and "only in the most dire and unlikely of fiscal circumstances." Clearly, these qualify as extraordinary financial times. Most area jurisdictions are tackling their budget problems. In an uncommon move to save money, the District of Columbia's City Council is furloughing itself for a fortnight. Other subdivisions, among them Howard and Anne Arundel counties, are hinting that they, too, may hold the line on county payrolls.

There is widespread agreement that the region faces tough times. But acknowledging the problem isn't the same as prescribing and downing the necessary medicine. Union leaders shouldn't kid themselves: there is no acceptable alternative to Mr. Potter's tonic for Montgomery County.

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