Most Montgomery County Government, Public Safety Employees To Receive 5.5 Percent Pay Raise for Sixth Straight Year

Most Montgomery County Government, Public Safety Employees To Receive 5.5 Percent Pay Raise for Sixth Straight Year

Council President Hans Riemer expressed concern last week about the sustainability of the salary increases

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Updated – 10:30 a.m., Tuesday – Since fiscal 2014, most Montgomery County government employees as well as police officers and firefighters have received an average annual 5.5 percent pay increase.

In the next fiscal year, which covers county spending from July 1 to June 30, 2019, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed a 5.5 percent pay increase for most of those employees—marking the sixth straight year of pay increases for county employees. The pay increases have been happening after county employee pay stagnated during the recession.

The all-Democrat County Council on Tuesday morning unanimously voted to approve the pay increases without any comment.

The pay increase approval comes as the county's forecasted tax revenue fell about $106 million below the approved fiscal 2018 budget. In fiscal 2019, tax revenue is forecasted to be about $77 million less than was forecasted just a year ago, according to council staff documents.

The pay increases are estimated to cost the county an additional $24.36 million in fiscal 2019, and because some employees won’t receive their full salary increases until halfway through the year or later—the annualized cost, or the ongoing cost year over year, of the pay increases is estimated to be $36.33 million, according to the county.

Average salaries for Montgomery County employees. Via County Council staff documents.

The average salary for a county employee increased 11.5 percent over the past five years—from $70,643 in fiscal 2014 to $78,762 in fiscal 2018— due to staff turnover and workforce growth, which enables the county to hire employees at lower starting salaries. The county government workforce has grown from 9,445 positions to 10,235 positions during that period.

The county employee pay increases have outpaced regional neighbors. For example, since fiscal 2014, Prince George’s County has increased employee pay for police, firefighters and county employees by about 11 percent, compared to Montgomery County’s more than 25 percent increase for most employees over the five-year period, according to the council staff report.

Aron Trombka, a county legislative analyst, told the council’s Government Operations Committee Friday that the comparison data “shows county employees compared favorably to those employed in the public sector in this area.”

He said comparing average salaries, as opposed to pay increases, to other area jurisdictions is difficult due to the difference in salary schedules, benefits and other variables. Trombka also noted that the pay increases are outpacing the county’s revenue growth, which stands at about 2.5 percent each year. And he said the county must deal with rising health insurance costs for county government and public school employees that are expected to rise about 7 percent in fiscal 2019.

Trombka noted that about 80 percent of county agency budgets are spent on salary and benefits.

“They’re really the dominant factor,” Trombka said.

The pay raises are part of the collective bargaining agreements the county negotiated with the county employee union—MCGEO Local 1994; the police union—Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35; and the firefighters union—International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664. On Tuesday, the council also approved those agreements.

The consistent pay increases coupled with the budgetary challenges resulted in County Council President Hans Riemer questioning Friday whether the continued increases are sustainable.

Riemer said first that he supports the bargained agreements, “but I wanted to express that I am concerned about where this county is right now. We shouldn’t be struggling so hard to fund our priorities. The decline in revenue is troubling. We’re not in a very strong place. It feels to me like we’re running out of gas and we could be hitting a recession anytime.”

He added that the employee bargaining units and county officials, “need to have some dialogue with how to grapple with that eventuality… we need to begin talking about what happens when we face a downturn.”

Gordon Brenne, the vice president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers’ league, questioned the size of the proposed and recent raises during an operating budget public hearing on April 11.

“We look at a 5.5 percent pay increase and wonder—what are you smoking?” Brenne told the council. “Last year, there was a 5.5 percent pay raise. Ever since the recession ended, if you add up the pay raises, it’s over 30 percent.”

In the past year, private sector wages in the U.S. grew at about 2.9 percent—the strongest increase since the first quarter of 2007, before the Great Recession began, according to the Labor Department.

During the committee hearing Friday, council member Sidney Katz contended that the county pay increases are warranted.

“I do believe we are getting, in many ways, a great bargain,” Katz said. “People take it for granted, especially in Montgomery County, that you can dial 911 and someone’s going to be able to come to your door and solve a problem for you. The best way to do that is to have the best personnel you can have.”

Council member Nancy Navarro, the chair of the Government Operations Committee, said Friday the candidates running for County Council and county executive this year should be prepared for some tough decisions. In November, a new county executive and at least four new council members will be elected due to term limits forcing incumbents out of their current positions.

“The folks that are going to be honored to sit at this County Council dais next year and the new county executive will have a lot to grapple with,” Navarro said.

Editor's note: This story was updated after the County Council approved the pay increases Tuesday morning.

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