Virtual Town Hall Meeting Transcript (Monday, January 24, 2011)
Mr. Leggett: Welcome to today's live discussion. I look forward to answering your questions. Let's get started.
Kevin from Up County
Mr. Leggett - I recently read the Council's report on the County's structural budget deficit. Several options were identified that would appear to allow you to avoid the need for employee layoffs. One such option is to increase school system employees benefit costs and to make this percentage uniform across all agencies. Councilmember Leventhal may propose legislation to make this a realtiy. Would you support this legislation, and what other cross-agency solutions will you propose to avoid cutting jobs? Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question.
Consolidating and equalizing benefit costs across County agencies is one of a number of areas that our restructuring commissions are currently looking at. County agencies already save money by consolidated bidding on health costs but there can be additional savings out there.
Given our fiscal challenges – in the short, medium, and long-tem – Montgomery County cannot continue business as usual. When I took office five years ago, I made it clear that the County was living beyond its means and that spending was unsustainable. That was even before the economic downturn. In the past four years, I have closed budget shortfalls totaling $2.4 billion. This year’s budget is 7 percent less than last year’s – and we are looking at a $300 million shortfall for the coming year.
I will not recommend any tax increase beyond the current County charter limit. Further budget reductions, though necessary, will be painful. I will try to avoid employee layoffs to the extent possible. That is why it is important to restructure the way County agencies do business. Right now, everything is on the table and, soon, we will separate what makes sense from what doesn’t. I will work closely with Councilmember Leventhal and other Councilmembers toward that end.
I appreciate your question.
James from Rockville
Congratulations on your re-election. I recently dialed 311 to get it done. On both occasions, I was transferred to another number. On one of those occasions, I was transferred twice within the County's network (240-777) after the initial 311 call. What gives? Sometimes I get a service request number to follow up on my complaint, and other times I don't. Surely this can't be what you envisioned when you established this program.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
311 is, essentially, the front office operation for County departments, including the County Executive. They take the information, create service requests, and send them to the folks who do the work.
Because there are two tiers of service in 311 – the second tier with specialists focusing in on particular areas such as taxes, health and human services, recycling – you may be transferred to make sure you get what you need.
Additionally, starting this week, 311 will transfer your call – rather than give you another number to call – for those services that are outside County government, such as municipalities, WSSC, the public schools, and the State of Maryland.
Only about two dozen phone numbers have been transferred to 311, leaving about 11,000 numbers that can still be dialed directly. Of course, all County telephone numbers are available through the County’s website at www.montgomerycountymd.gov
The 311 Customer Service Center is designed to make it easier for county residents to obtain information, make service requests, and track progress on those requests. The system will also give the County timely information on County department performance to more effectively target resources to particular areas and needs.
Also, it has already saved the County about $10 million between last fiscal year and the coming year.
Before 311 many residents didn’t know what number to call. When they reached someone it was often the wrong person. Often they simply reached a voicemail and never talked to a “live” person. There was little to no ability to track service requests across departments and tracking even within departments was often unsystematic. The information County managers used to allocate resources and solve problems was often not timely or was more anecdotal than scientific.
We recently completed a survey of County 311 users and found about a 75 percent satisfaction rate. That’s fine – but not good enough. We want to make sure it works as well as possible and will continue to work to make sure every single call gets addressed as it should.
Benson from Silver Spring
a: What influence/controls exist to effect the ability to review PEPCO's past performances (e.g. availability of records) and future activities?
b: Can/will you find people competent and knowledgeable enough to accurately assess PEPCO's performance and critique PEPCO's future plans? This team needs to be well versed in all aspects of electrical grid design, maintenance, and electrical equipment
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
I want to make sure we don’t go through again what we experienced last February and last July and August. And, of course, there are the “blue sky” outages that often happen on the nicest of days. Clearly the status quo is unacceptable.
Following the summer storms I met with Pepco CEO Rigby and other Pepco officials in my office in Rockville. I assembled a work group of experts on utility matters and others to evaluate Pepco's performance and to engage them on a range of other issues. We will continue to communicate with the Public Service Commission and the public on our progress.
My Pepco work group will release its findings in the near future on what Pepco should be doing to improve service reliability. I’ve received considerable feedback from residents and businesses alike affected by reliability concerns.
Rest assured that I’ll keep the pressure on. We can’t control Mother Nature. What we can do, however, is make sure that Pepco’s infrastructure is better suited to weather such storms and that Pepco recovery efforts – and the communication to customers about that – are what County residents expect and deserve and pay for.
I think Pepco has gotten the message. Now is the time to “roll up our sleeves” and work with them to deliver on promises made.
joe from Rockville
Dear County Executive Leggett,
In your budget considerations:
1. Are you considering eliminating as many administrative positions as possible, including in the County administration, school (including "specialty" teachers and resource personnel), fire and EMT, and police, thus making practically all positions "working" positions?
2. Have you considered a 20% across-the-board compensation cuts (i.e., wages plus benefits, including retirement) for ALL current employees?
3. Will you consider immediate re-negotiation with all unions for both compensation and benefits?
4. To fill vacancies, will you approach those who went on pensions within the last ten (10) years, and who are less than seventy (70) years old, and who have no major physical disabilities, requesting that they re-enter county service until they are 70 years old, at the new (reduced) County pay scale, with no increase in pension benefits (with the alternative being court action to reduce current benefits
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for all your thoughts and questions on budget issues.
In eliminating “administrative” positions in favor of “working positions,” I would make a couple points.
First, just over the past two years, I have eliminated nearly 1,100 County positions – more than a ten percent cut in the County workforce. Many of these were administrative positions. I think, though, that we need to realize that administrative positions are also “working” positions that support front-line employees.
Second, on wage cuts, I am currently involved in collective bargaining negotiations with all Montgomery County government unions (not including the school unions, who bargain with our elected Board of Education). I cannot talk publicly about specific issues under negotiation but, with 80 percent of County costs going to wages and benefits, changes are clearly on the agenda.
I do not believe I can legally compel County retirees to reenter the work force at a reduced pay rate and no increase in pension benefits.
From the start, I have relied on “results-oriented” management in reducing County spending over the past four years. Our CountyStat office has been very helpful in that regard, identifying County department performance in real time, allowing us to deliver services in a more cost-effective way. As to “sacred cows” being protected, I think, after four years of reducing, that herd is small, if not non-existent. The low-hanging fruit is long gone – and the middle of the tree is looking pretty sparse right now.
In regards to school administrative positions, the Board of Education and the superintendent are the only entities that can make the kinds of decisions that you are asking for. As County Executive I make broad recommendations regarding the bottom line and then under State law, the Board of Education and Superintendent make decisions regarding how the funds are allocated by programs. I urge you to write the Board with your views on this issue.
From the start of my budget reductions, I have sought to protect education, public safety, and help for the most vulnerable as much as possible. Given continuing revenue shortfalls owing to the lingering economic downturn, it is no longer possible to spare even those areas. Hard choices must be made. The vulnerable have no better advocate at the table than me. I know what is at stake.
Paul from Mid County
Given all the national attention to mental illness, especially in light of the Arizona tragedy, are there plans to increase county mental health services?
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question. The Arizona shootings were terrible tragedies for the individuals and families involved as well as for our nation. I think it's very important that we not allow this event to stereotype all individuals with mental health disorders. Montgomery County offers a range of mental health services through its Department of Health and Human Services as well as many non profit providers. We have attempted to keep up with the increasing demand for services including adding new services recently for veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for non English speakers. We have model programs which provide mental health services for very young children and for adults in our detention center. As we face difficult economic conditions, I intend to do all I can to continue our excellent continuum of community based mental health services. It may be very difficult to increase these services at this time, but we will continue to monitor this issue to see if we can do more in the foreseeable future.
Kelly from Bethesda-Chevy Chase
I would like to know when you are going to make a mandatory rent control law for montgomery county?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I do not favor mandatory rent controls at this time. Existing County law is designed to enable the County's Housing Department to work closely with landlords to help contain unfair rent increases. We will continue in the near future to work with this law to determine if any changes are needed to make it more effective. The Housing Department's annual survey of rent increases in the County has shown that most rents have increased at or about the local rate of inflation. Further, I believe that rent controls could significantly reduce the development of new rental units thereby having the reverse effect of actually contributing to higher rents. Last year I appointed a Tenants' Work Group which met for almost a year and made a number of good recommendations to me to improve the lives of renters in our county. We are working to implement many of the recommendations. The County's Housing Department will continue to closely monitor rent increases in the County and communicate with landlords who exceed the recommended maximum increases.
kelly from Rockville
How come the health department close down many massage parlor but 620 hungerford dr, rockville, md 20850, and 966 hungerford dr.11 a, rockville, md 20850, and 18552 office park dr, montgonmery village, Md 20886 still operate massage parlor without massage lincese, and they advertise in city paper in the adult session, with seductive ads for man, How can county allow such sexual activities in our state, and shut down the legit one. NOt only Miss qin Kolb,the business owner is an illegle immgrant, she also hires illegle lady from south America. Please be fair, if the county police want to shut down our business, and than the county should shut down those headquater, she is the one who open for us,and charge us a lot of money for lincese, and told us we will be able to run business
we paid her 5000 for biz dousments and now we are the only who lost biz, and the evil biz cheater still survie, We are the no. 5 victim by her. Who is she? Is she the Law who decide who stay in biz, who i
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question.
Montgomery County has worked for nearly 10 years to stop the proliferation of massage parlors in the community. We passed legislation that imposes tough licensing requirements for massage establishments and bans cross-gender massage by uncertified practitioners. Legitimate massage businesses—where state licensed practitioners conduct certified massage therapy—are protected under the law.
Our Police work constantly to review newspapers and online sources of advertisements and then work closely with the Department of Permitting Services to determine whether a business is operating legally. If they do not possess the required certifications, the businesses lose their use and occupancy permit and are shut down.
The establishments mentioned on Hungerford Drive are within the City of Rockville— and are their jurisdiction. You may want to contact the City of Rockville directly. We continue to work with Rockville and with other municipalities in the County to ensure that they are working with all of their available resources to shut down establishments that are illegal.
I appreciate your question.
Alison from Up County
How can we protest against Holy Cross and the Catholic community creating the new hospital and why did the county support it? I agree that we need a new hospital up county, but why not the Seventh Day Adventists? It would be a much better medical option for people. I am very concerned, and I know I am not alone, about the possibility of the Catholics running the hospital.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question regarding a new hospital for the up County area. I am pleased that the Maryland State Health Care Commission agreed a hospital is needed and awarded a certificate of need. The County's position was and continues to be that a hospital is needed in this part of the County and the selection of which hospital is selected is exclusively a State decision. I had no preference regarding the two excellent hospitals that submitted proposals. You may want to submit your concerns to the MD. Health Care Commission at 4160 Patterson Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21215.
Scott from Rockville
Hello Mr. Leggett:
According to various published news reports over 2,000 school system employees working outside of classrooms earn in excess of $100,000 per year. The school system hasn't faced the magnitude of budget cuts that other agencies, like County government have faced over the past few years. Besides another maintenance of effort law waiver what new policies or recommendations will you enact to assure that the school system contributes its fair share to address the County's fiscal woes during fiscal year 2012, and beyond? Thank you.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I have been greatly concerned with the requirements of the State's Maintenance of Effort law. For the last two years, as we have struggled with an unprecedented downturn in County revenues, I have worked successfully with the Board of Education and the Council to receive a waiver of the requirements under this law -- either by the State Board of Education or the State legislature. I hope that this year, we will be able to work with the State legislature to craft a more effective law that recognizes the many other fiscal pressures under which counties operate. I have made it clear at all of the budget forums I have held, that I cannot foresee a budget for the next fiscal year that meets Maintenance of Effort. Given the revenue projections for next year, meeting Maintenance of Effort would mean devastating nearly all other County functions including public safety and our safety net services.
I will be working hard to make sure this does not occur.
Carol from Up County
Can you speak to the importance of arts in Montgomery County, especially organizations like the National Philharmonic that plays concerts at Strathmore for all 2nd and 5th grade MCPS students as you address the budget?
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. I believe that the arts and humanities are important to the quality of life for people of all ages. We are fortunate in this County that former elected officials like Bill Hanna, who died last week, and my predecessor, Doug Duncan invested in the arts, particularly new facilities. There are a wide range of programs available to our residents at these wonderful venues. I have continued the tradition by investing some County funds, often matching state and private contributions, to help arts organizations with their facility and operating costs. I am excited that Live Nation will open its new venue in Silver Spring in the fall of this bringing another arts format to the County, which will enhance business and tax revenue in downtown Silver Spring. I believe the arts and humanities are good for our County's spirit, education and economy.
Lauren from Up County
Virgina and 4 other states are considering getting out of the Liquor Retail business because it is not cost effective. With the County shortfall, it might be time for Montgomery County to leave the retail of liquor to the private sector - the county wouldn't have to employ so many people for whom they have to pay salaries and benefits. The County should handle the licensing and collect a percentage of the revenue (similar to Hotel revenues)
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for your question. The issue of privatizing the County's Liquor Control operations has been evaluated a number of times. Each time, the analyses have indicated that privatizing this function would mean a net loss of revenue to the County totalling tens of millions of dollars -- even under the system which you are proposing. It is unclear that in the example that you cite in Virginia that privatization would significantly increase that state's net revenue. Given the serious shortfall in County revenues that we are already facing, now may not be the time to pursue such an initiative.
Alex from Mid County
Why are you cutting the Police Officer's salaries when we have a bloated entitlement budget?
Mr. Leggett: We are still in the midst of collective bargaining with the FOP and neither party is at liberty to discuss either their own position on salaries or the other side's position. Therefore, I am not sure where you are getting your information. I will point out that in the past, the entitlements that the Police receive are generous by any standards. Their ability to retire at an early age and with only 20 years of service is the envy of many public and private sector employees and our health benefits are also quite generous. We have significantly reduced all other areas of our budget in order to close $2.4 billion in shortfalls over the past four years, including eliminating over 1,100 positions over the past two years and we have substantially eliminated or reduced a number of programs and services the County offers. Much of this was done without reductions to the Police budget as compared to other departments.
John from Rockville
Mr. Leggett: Although I realize it is politically unpopular, it disappoints me that the county apparently has rejected any tax increases. No one likes taxes of course; but, after we've cut everything we can and we still have deficit, what's left?
Would something like a 1% or 2% sales tax be out of the question?
Mr. Leggett: Thanks for your question. You are correct that it is politcally unpopular to raise taxes, however I have done so in two of the four years that I have been County Executive as part of a comprhensive plan to bring sustainability to the county budget. Sales taxes are imposed by the State and not the County. The County's income taxes are at the maximum limit allowed by state law. Since becoming County Executive in 2006, I have had to close a budget gap of more than two billion dollars. I have closed this gap by balancing as fairly as I could reductions in County spending and increasing new revenues. Much of the County spending has been reduced through improvements in productivity and in the reduction in the County's workforce by 10%. These have been difficult, at times painful decisions and often polically unpopular. I have made these decisions because our County must be fiscally sound today and in the long run if we are to maintain the high quality of life our people deserve.
Mr. Leggett: Thank you for joining us today for the live discussion. Keep up with County news by subscribing to our new e-newsletter, The Paperless Airplane (http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/paperlessairplane).