A Tale of Two Counties
I missed this when it was published in May, but this Washington Post article detailing the fiscal differences between the economically and demographically similar D.C. ‘burbs of Fairfax County, VA and Montgomery County, MD is worth a read.
Take a snapshot of one year, 2006, when times were flush. In Fairfax, the county executive, an unelected technocrat, proposed a budget with a relatively robust spending increase of about 6 percent. In Montgomery, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a career politician then running in the Democratic primary for governor, pitched a gold-plated, pork-laden grab bag of political largess that drove county spending up by 11 percent.
Mr. Duncan’s budget that year capped a three-year spree in which county spending rose by almost 30 percent. It reflected major multiyear increases in pay and benefits that he had negotiated for police, firefighters and other county workers. At the same time, Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery’s schools superintendent, negotiated a contract that promised pay increases for most teachers of 26 to 29 percent over three years — about twice the raise Fairfax teachers got — plus health benefits virtually unmatched in the region….The results have been striking — and strikingly unaffordable — in a county where more than half of all spending goes to public schools. The average teacher salary in Montgomery today is $76,483, the highest in the region. Average pay for teachers is now almost 20 percent higher in Montgomery than in Fairfax and has increased much faster than in most local suburban school systems. Since 2000, salaries for Montgomery teachers, as for many other county employees, have nearly doubled, rising at almost triple the rate of inflation.
Teachers are pillars of any community, and Montgomery’s are highly rated. But their compensation has outstripped the marketplace. Today, Montgomery schools spend about 20 percent more per pupil than Fairfax schools; they consume a greater share of the public spending than in any other locality in the region. The spending gap is not about classroom quality and student achievement; in those terms the two school systems are comparable. Rather, the difference is compensation, which accounts for 90 percent of Montgomery’s education spending.
But times aren’t always good, and Fairfax was better able to handle the economic downturn. Why? Part of it has to do with the tax structure differences between the two states: Maryland relies on the more volatile income tax while Virginia doesn’t. But there is another factor.
Virginia law denies public employees collective bargaining rights; that’s helped Fairfax resist budget-busting wage and benefit demands. As revenue dipped two years ago, Fairfax officials froze all salaries for county government and school employees with little ado. By contrast, Montgomery leaders were badly equipped to cope with recession. County Executive Isiah Leggett took office proposing fat budgets and negotiating openhanded union deals after he succeeded Mr. Duncan. Then, as economic storm clouds gathered, he shifted gears and cut spending — while still trying to appease the unions….The county has just about run out of revenue-raising options, having boosted nearly its entire menu of taxes to the legal or practical limit. Montgomery’s higher taxes already put it at a competitive disadvantage with Fairfax, which has a wide lead in attracting business and creating high-wage jobs; now Montgomery risks a downward spiral.
Yeah, they wouldn’t want to turn into, say, Rhode Island. Virginia’s local county governments have the flexibility to make expenditure changes required without having to worry about doing the contract renegotiation kabuki dance. The genie is already out of the bottle here in RI, but, well, I guess we can take some solace from the fact that we’re not alone (right?).