July 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Counties

Marc Comtois

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?).

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My apartment search didn't even include MD because of the political climate there. Why even leave RI if I'm just going to get abused by another corrupt Democratic welfare state with out of control unions and public spending? VA attracted me to it like a beacon. Taxes are so low there, everything is so beautiful, and the people are just so much friendlier and happier.

Posted by: Dan at July 23, 2010 4:12 PM

"Taxes are so low there, everything is so beautiful, and the people are just so much friendlier and happier."

One could say the same about every Red or quasi-Red state. Even Red areas within Blue states like Michigan, NY CA or RI.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at July 23, 2010 6:58 PM

Dan, you made me think of my friend Jean who lives in Florida. Unemployed with a BA, fifty years old, lots to offer but can't find a job paying more than 10.00 hr. Actually, she can't find a job Paying 10.00 an hour. She's ready to move north.

My sister just moved back to RI after twenty years in Texas and North Carolina. No work that pays. Taxes on clothes and food, same overall tax burden as RI.

No matter where you go, there you are.

Posted by: michael at July 23, 2010 8:04 PM

My daughter-in-law is a teacher in Fairfax county. She has to set goals each year and gets evaluated twice during the year. She gets a one year contract each year and has a blended retirement plan like the federal model. I have not heard her complaining about not getting a raise, she loves her job, she loves her kids in school, and she loves Virginia. No union needed and she has now signed five annual contracts and is a successful teacher. She can prove it because she has her evaluations to document her goals and achievements.

Wouldn't it be great to have such a system in RI. It would weed out the poor performers for sure.

Posted by: John at July 23, 2010 9:13 PM


I hate to point this out, but the article you linked and relied on heavily to make your anti teacher union and anti Rhode Island argument is an editorial and not a news story written and edited using journalistic standards. Editorials state opinions and attempt to convince readers with their argument. This is the paragraph that is at the crux of the writers opinion piece:

"To put it bluntly, Montgomery is lurching under the weight of irresponsible governance, unsustainable commitments and political spinelessness -- particularly in the face of politically powerful public employees unions."

So you bought it. Any other reader should at this point wonder if this is true. Could there be something that this opinion writer is not telling us about other contributing factors, but this is not a news article.
Now there are those that jump to conclusions and act rashly after seeing or hearing something that appears to be true. The Department of Agriculture and someone at the White House have admitted to have done just that when they tried to fire Shirley Sherrod for having made racist remarks in a speech. There was supporting evidence in the form of a video. The only problem was that it was not true that this woman had made racist remarks. But there's that video with her and the things she saying and all. Saw it on Fox. Must be true. We all know the story now that we have been treated to hearing and seeing the WHOLE speech that Sherrod had made. The parts that were left out changed the entire meaning of the speech.
Don't look to editorials to give you all the facts, but only those that support their argument.
Also remember that anonymous commentors can have only anonymous daughters in law so take those stories with a grain of salt.
As a public service maybe Marc can give us a sort of right wing low to no tax and union travel log where "Everything is so Beautiful" and maybe Dan will go to one of them.

Posted by: Phil at July 24, 2010 5:42 AM
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