You said noted earlier that, if elected, you wouldn’t be “dictator” of Montgomery County, but you obviously have a direction in which you would like to take the county. What are some of your top policy priorities?
We’ve been talking about the achievement gap pretty much since I started school in this county in 1961. It’s not going anywhere, and part of that is because it’s not strictly a school problem. A lot of lower-income folks don’t come with the same education middle-class folks have, and don’t have the time to spend with the kids because they’re working more jobs. And it puts their kids at a disadvantage. We’ve got data about how many kids are entering school two years behind, and it’s a lot. If you’re 5 years old and two years behind, you’re probably not ready to sit in the classroom and get traditional instruction. Study after study says that if you take early childhood [education] and make it more accessible, you get changes in performance.
I’ve talked to some of my colleagues about this, and said, “Look, we don’t have a candy store.” If you’ve looked at my campaign, you will not find a laundry list of promises I’ve made … because there’s no money. And so I’ve said, “If we’re going to do something, let’s do something that’s important, something that is likely to provide significant changes, and focus our resources on that first.”
In 2016, you were part of the unanimous council vote for an 8.7 percent property tax increase, which was aimed primarily at school system needs. When asked earlier this year whether you foresaw proposing another tax increase beyond the charter limit of the rate of inflation, you said, “I would hope not.” Does this remain your position?
My view fundamentally is that we’re not doing any tax increases, there’s no appetite for that … . The reality is that the recovery has been slow and people’s personal incomes have been very slow to recover. And it’s unlikely there will be any major revenue increases. Some of our biggest economic deals involve major tax giveaways; Marriott comes here and gets $52 million in tax breaks. It’s not like that money is going to be flowing into the county and state coffers. So we’ve made decisions that, even with economic growth, may limit anything really robust for the county.
I want people to want to come here. We’re going to have a growing population; I need to have a tax base that grows. But you can’t possibly grow fast enough to outrun the needs that this county has. So we need a balanced approach of trying to get more jobs here, but also trying to manage the place better… . That’s why I’m doubling down on restructuring.
So you see restructuring county government as a way to help pay for some of your priorities, be they expanding pre-kindergarten education or building a bus rapid transit system throughout the county?
I think the biggest priority is restructuring the county government… . I know it sounds strange, and I get quizzical looks because people know my political orientation. But the reality is that … I could make a laundry list of social things that would be great to do, but every one of them costs money, and we don’t have it.
We’ve got a $5 billion budget, and I do believe—which many people have said—that if you can’t find 4 or 5 percent [in savings] in a $5 billion budget, something’s wrong with you. Montgomery County is technologically backward; there are people who describe the jobs that [some county workers] do as the jobs of 20 years ago. We don’t have good metrics in Montgomery County. I’ve asked for metrics for years, and we don’t have what we’re supposed to have. So I want a real metrics approach; if I’m funding somebody to do something, I want to see the outcomes. And if you’re not producing outcomes, the funding streams aren’t going to continue.
When we had lots of money—and [former County Executive Doug] Duncan is No. 1 guilty of this—they just threw stuff against a wall. [Editor’s note: Duncan is backing Floreen in the November election.] And nobody said, “What’s the best way to organize this? Of the things we already do, is there anything I’m doing that is less valuable that there would be a good replacement for?” And so we wound up with the government edifice we have now—which, on the one hand, represents the best of liberal intentions, but also probably one of its weaknesses, which is not thinking about money. And now, if we want to continue to be the party that people vote for, we’ve got to figure out how to make ourselves fiscally responsible. You’ve got to adopt a culture of continuous improvement.
Ms. Floreen has criticized a promise you made during the primary to involve the head of the county employee union, UFCW 1994 MCGEO, in vetting potential department heads. What exactly do you see as MCGEO’s role in such a process?
I was approached by [MCGEO President] Gino [Renne] a couple of years ago who basically said, “You’re not sustainable,” and “We’re going to run out of money, and if we run out money, we’re going to lose our jobs anyway.” He had been put on a Prince George’s County commission where they were looking at ways of improving sustainability. And he said, “You need to do the same thing over here.”
[Labor] would rather have the restructuring, and reduce the workforce in a meaningful way, so that you don’t wake up—as happened during the recession—and somebody says “You’ve got to make 5 percent cuts, or we’re going to lose 1,000 jobs.” But we didn’t have any time to think about: “Can I restructure and do a better job with the resources I have?”
So I’m looking at everything we can do, and I’m going to bring in people at multiple levels who understand this, and go about the process of making these changes. Anybody who’s done it … tells you you’ve got to do it with the workforce. Because if the staff thinks that your objective is to fire a whole bunch of people and surplus them, they’re not going to sit there and execute themselves. But if they feel you’re going to work with them and you’re going to use attrition to provide the savings in labor, then they’re much more willing to do this.
But will the union have a role in deciding who gets to run county departments?
Not in decisions. This is not going up for a plebiscite. It’s going to be me and the [county’s chief administrative officer] figuring out who are the people he feels are most likely to carry out his objectives—and who do I think understands what my objectives are.
I’ve already got a pretty good idea of where I want to go. But I’m interested in feedback. I also was going to bring in business people and social service people as I interview. If you’re doing economic development in Montgomery County, I would want the business community to feel comfortable with the person I bring in. I would want the social services agencies to feel that, whoever your human services [department] director is—whether it’s the same one or a different one, I haven’t made up my mind on that—that person is somebody who understands what’s going on in the department.
Speaking of economic development, while you don’t think the county can grow fast enough to meet its needs, what do you feel is needed in terms of attracting new jobs and growing the tax base?
I want to rethink economic development. There are places that have really robust, active, incubator programs that help people turn ideas into products, where you have essentially light-industrial components, and people learning how to make things that require decent-size machinery. I think we need to grow the economy at the top and we need to grow it at the bottom, and we’ve got to start providing ways for kids at the bottom to get an entry into all this. We’ve got all these kids leaving the schools who aren’t prepared for work. They’re not going to college … and we need to think more about how you employ those people.
The thing with which I agreed with Nancy [Floreen], like on the [creation of the Economic Development Corp.], was to try to change the face that Montgomery County puts forward. I got a presentation from [the EDC] recently of 50 projects they were engaged in, in terms of bringing in businesses and expanding businesses in Montgomery County, and I was really encouraged by that.
I thought [former County Council member] Steve Silverman was the worst economic development director we ever had. [Editor’s note: The county’s Department of Economic Development was replaced by the EDC in 2016. Silverman is a co-founder of Empower Montgomery, an advocacy group Elrich has charged was created to “advance the … special interests of the county’s developers.”]. If you go back and listen to some of the back and forth between Steve and me [at council meetings], it was, “Why don’t you travel to these trade shows in other states? Why aren’t you recruiting people? Why don’t we have an ad in the airlines that hub out of D.C. saying ‘You’re landing at DCA, come visit Montgomery County’?”
There are all these things that we should be able to do: That’s not the council’s fault, and it’s not because I haven’t suggested things that I think would make us more attractive.