The six Democrats running for Montgomery County executive were greeted Friday morning with a fiery presentation from researcher Anirban Basu, who painted a bleak picture about the county’s business climate based on a report his firm, Sage Policy Group, published.
Basu presented his report, commissioned by the nonprofit Empower Montgomery, which detailed how the lack of tax base growth potentially threatens the quality of life and county services offered in Montgomery County. The report points to statistics such as private sector employment declining by about 12,500 jobs from 2006 to 2016, the creation of only six new business establishments during that time and rising government debt as signs of the lack of economic development in the county.
“Here’s the news—people are acting as if that’s not the case,” Basu said. “There’s been almost no response. Everyone knows it. It’s no secret, I understand that, but it’s not as if people are actually responding to it—the information.”
Shortly after he finished his remarks, the candidates—County Council members Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich and George Leventhal as well as Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda), former Planning Department Deputy Director Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair—took the stage at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville to respond to questions about the county’s economic climate. The forum was sponsored by the Montgomery County Business Roundtable—a coalition of chambers of commerce and building owner groups.
Frick kicked off the discussion by describing the statistics as an indictment of the current county government including his opponents Elrich, Berliner and Leventhal, who have all held office for more than a decade.
“How can a county with our talent, with our people, with our well-educated people—how can a county like this be in what Anirban called a ‘downward spiral’?,” Frick said. “We should be leading the nation in economic development, but we’re not. Why? Because of a political culture, a political culture coming out of Rockville that Anirban says doesn’t accept the contributions of the business community.”
Like Frick, Blair said he was outraged over the state of the local economy.
“If I had delivered results like that I would have been fired, or I guess in this case term-limited out, and I certainly wouldn’t be seeking a promotion,” Blair said, referring to Elrich, Berliner and Leventhal—who cannot seek re-election to their council seats due to term limits approved by voters in 2016.
Berliner was ready with his own statistics to refute the findings of the report. He said the county outperformed Fairfax County in private-sector job growth, resident employment growth and gross regional product and has a lower office vacancy rate.
“It isn’t quite as bleak as was suggested,” Berliner said.
Leventhal offered his often-repeated belief that the candidates seeking the county’s highest office shouldn’t be bashing the local economy.
“Bill Frick’s hair is on fire, he thinks you should toss the County Council out,” Leventhal said. “The truth is political leadership is only part of the equation. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If the business community wants to be heard, you have to speak to us.”
He later noted that the suit- and tie-clad audience of more than 250 people gathered for the forum did not appear to be members of the community interest groups that regularly make endorsements in the Democratic primary and generate attendance at government hearings where policy is being developed.
“We respond to people we hear and see,” Leventhal said. “The political dynamic that drives a Democratic primary is 180 degrees different in orientation and philosophy from the conversation we’re having in this room.”
Blair took issue with that statement, and said as a business leader, he encountered governments that went directly to businesses to understand their needs and said the county should do more of that.
“If you elect the same people, with the same policies, you are going to have the same problems,” Blair said.
Krasnow, a former Rockville mayor, said the county continues to implement policies that prove it’s not business friendly. She suggested lowering taxes—specifically getting rid of the energy tax—and cutting regulations as a way to improve its economy. She also appeared to disagree with the county’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years.
“If we had done a fiscal analysis of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it probably would not have looked well for the people we were trying to help,” Krasnow said. “To be very honest, we would have recognized that jobs might actually be lost because certain jobs are going to be lost because certain businesses are going to switch to automation.”
She added that neighboring counties such as Prince George’s and Frederick, which haven’t raised their minimum wages, may be better positioned to compete for business due to Montgomery raising the wage incrementally to $15 per hour.
Elrich, who has garnered the support of progressives, union members and residents who believe the county is developing too quickly, defended his record of promoting and establishing local policies such as the minimum wage hike and paid family leave legislation.
He promised to work with the business community on policy proposals and noted that Washington, D.C., has better economic statistics than the county despite having a higher minimum wage, more restrictive business regulations, more social programs and higher rents. He called for investing in bus rapid transit to build a network of routes in the county to connect business centers with communities as a way to alleviate traffic congestion and grow urban areas.
The candidates, with the exception of Elrich, mostly agreed with reducing or eliminating the energy tax. They also said they would work to reduce issues at the Department of Permitting Services. Many of the candidates said they’ve heard complaints about the department's lengthy and costly permitting processes.
Elrich took issue with many of the candidates suggesting possibly costly policy changes—such as eliminating the energy tax—without having a plan to pay for the services that could be defunded as a result.
“Nobody has a plausible plan for how to unwind these things … and still maintain supports in the county government,” Elrich asserted.
Blair said he would cut the budget by defunding programs that aren’t working. He took issue with how the county budgeting process always begins with fully funding existing programs before other options are considered.
“We’ve been hammered by taxes,” Blair said. “We’ve got to roll back some of them—certainly the recordation tax and the energy tax … . One of the things we’re going to have to do is make our $5.6 billion budget go farther.”