Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.
Montgomery County looks to avoid a Madison, Wisconsin-style battle over public workers. D.C. lawmakers prepare for their own budget fight. And Virginia pols dig in for a redistricting brawl. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Allen Lew City Administrator, District of Columbia
- Valerie Ervin President, Montgomery County Council (D)
Politics Hour Extra
Montgomery County Council President (D) Valerie Ervin talks about what she sees as the inequities in burden-sharing between the county’s different groups of public employees. “One-third of our county employees are being asked to shoulder the burden of the budget, while two-thirds of county employees in the school system are not,” she said. Ervin said that as the school system’s budget grows, other important budgets are shrinking:
D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew talks about the recent criticisms that some salaries paid to Gray administration officials are too high. Lew said that Mayor Gray is “looking to bring in the best people,” and claims that overall, the mayor’s office is operating under a lower budget than that of the Fenty administration:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Tom, it was a bad week according to polls for the mayor and city council chairman. Mayor Vincent Gray of the District of Columbia, his job approval rating stands at 31 percent, with 40 percent disapproving. Kwame Brown, the council chair, 43 percent disapprove of the job he's doing, with only 27 percent approving. Of course, we should not be surprised about that.
MR. TOM SHERWOODOh, they're dismal numbers. The mayor knows it. The mayor looks at that -- a lot of people who didn't have an opinion. He knows he's got some -- as he said, I've got some work to do, the kind of the stumble out of the starting gate, but those are really terrible numbers. You know, when he was the chairman of the council, the polls showed that the council has something like a 60 percent approval rate. I can't remember the exact number, and so that's a significant change for him going from council chairman to mayor.
NNAMDIAnd during the course of this discussion, we will find out from one of the top officials in the Vincent Gray administration exactly what he might be doing to improve those numbers, but we have a caller on the line who wants, I think, to talk about somebody else who he thinks had a fairly good week. Caller, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. MARK PLOTKINYeah. I'm very glad...
PLOTKIN...to get the opportunity to call in. I had to go to a -- what is it called? A gastrointestinal doctor after reading that puff piece about Kojo Nnamdi and food. The same humility, the cult-like following, obviously, that journalist has -- I wouldn't call him a journalist -- has been paid to write an extraordinary puff piece and also the comments of that Southern sycophant within the article. The whole thing was nauseating.
NNAMDII told our telephone facilitator, Dorie Anisman, not to allow any crank calls on this broadcast, nevertheless, he got through, Tom. What's...
SHERWOODWell, first of all, this crank...
NNAMDI...he's talking about?
SHERWOODWell, you know, he has nothing else to do, but the fact is, you know, if he wants to talk about food and eating, we can talk about Morton's and all these other places he hangs out...
SHERWOOD...and where, you know, his mind is addled by all the rich foods he eats there.
NNAMDIHe's well known in these places. But, Caller, thank you very much. I assumed this was going to be a complimentary call, instead it's full of the usual tirade of...
PLOTKINAnd also I must say that...
NNAMDI...insults that have come to characterize your broadcast presence.
PLOTKINAlso I don't even know why Valerie Ervin comes up to a show that nobody listens to. We've already had her on at 10 o'clock. It's duplicative and repetitive, and, obviously...
PLOTKIN…I'm surprised (unintelligible).
NNAMDI...don't we have some serious matters to discuss here?
SHERWOODWell, here's the difference between that show on that other radio station and this one, the guests get a chance to talk.
NNAMDIThank you very much. And as a result of Tom's remark, the host of that show who just called in will no longer get a chance to talk on this show. Sir, thank you very much for your call, whoever the heck you are. We'll move on to the matter at hand. That, of course, was Mark Plotkin, who runs around town pretending to be a talk show host.
SHERWOODHis career is in a nosedive.
NNAMDITom, it would appear that the census figures for the District of Columbia indicate that the number of African-American residents in the city is declining, and declining at a fairly rapid rate. And the fact of the matter is that, it seems to me, that all of these census numbers serve to popularize an ancient song that nobody really listens to anymore.
PARLIAMENTThere's a lot of chocolate cities around. We've got Newark. We've got Gary. Somebody told me we got L.A. And we're working on Atlanta. But you're the capital, CC. Gaining on you.
NNAMDINobody much has referred to D.C. as Chocolate City in about 15 years, have they?
SHERWOODYou know, it hasn't been, but, you know, it's really not. It's Mocha City or, you know, Beige City. It's a significant demographic change for the nation's capital. It was significant several decades ago when the white people flew out to the suburbs, white flight. And now, after -- you know, the city is starting to grow again, and people are moving in. And African-Americans are part of that, but the overall numbers are dropping dramatically.
NNAMDIFor those of you who don't know exactly what we're talking about, according to the census, the black population of Washington dropped by 39,000 over the past decade, down to 301,000 of the city's 601,700 residents. At the same time, the white population skyrocketed by more than 50,000, to 209,000 residents, and so the black population is dropping by about 1 percent a year, and, in the eyes of some people, may already be below the 50 percent mark in the city. The significance of all of that, we leave for you to interpret.
SHERWOODWell, let me -- Matt Watson, the former auditor for the city, called and told me an interesting statistic. He recalled that when this home rule started in the '70s, Polly Shackelton was a Ward 3 councilmember who represented the very large geographic space of Ward 3 in Northwest, Washington. He says he know -- now, there are four different council members who have a piece of Northwest, Washington...
NNAMDI...in the -- on the council of Wards 3 and 4, 1 and 2.
SHERWOODSo he says it's a significant change.
NNAMDIIt is indeed a significant change. Before we move on to our first guest, I do have to mention that Mark Plotkin works for WTOP Radio, and he was referring to an article in The Washington Post by Tim Carman in the food section about the food Wednesday broadcast that we have here on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, this is "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst, an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Our guest came into his job with a reputation as a guy who gets things done whether it's refurbishing school facilities or managing the construction of the baseball stadium or the convention center, but we are now a few months into the Gray administration. And the city administrator for the District of Columbia in that administration is Allen Lew, who joins us in studio. Allen Lew, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALLEN LEWThank you for having me.
NNAMDIA lot of people are wondering exactly what is Allen Lew getting done in this administration? He's a guy who has a reputation for getting things done. What can you say are some of the things you've been busy getting done since you started this job?
LEWWell, we've been working on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and even as we started the administration, we -- the mayor had envisioned a furlough of District workers for the paid holidays, and we spent quite a bit of time working with the two dozen labor unions to put that in place. And we have been operating the government. I think that the public tends to focus sometimes on the sensational side of current events. And the fact that the streets are being cleaned, and the garbage is being removed and when...
SHERWOODTickets are being written.
LEWTickets are being written. Snow is being removed and...
SHERWOODMaybe for Sunday, are we ready for the big snowstorm on Sunday?
NNAMDIThere's a snowstorm coming Sunday?
SHERWOODThere's -- well, listen, yes. We'll have a little dusting of snow on Sunday.
LEWA dusting. He said dusting.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, we know what can happen in the District of Columbia...
NNAMDI...after a dusting.
LEWYes. Yes. The District's residents aren't always equipped to deal with dustings or snowstorms.
SHERWOODWell, you know, you -- the mayor next week presents his first budget. It's gonna be -- and he's warned, you know, several hundred million dollar shortfalls and cuts and things. Now, I'm gonna ask you about the scandals and the hiring and all those things. Now, but is the -- is this a -- it seems to me there's a chance for him to reset the agenda. If he comes out with a budget that's clear, understood by people, whether they like it or not, he can kind of regain the microphone as the mayor going forward. Is he going to be ready to do that?
LEWI think he will be. The mayor will -- his budget will emphasize continuing school reform, public safety, and, you know, he is looking to affect the culture of the District of Columbia government. We're looking to, essentially, set up a performance relationship between the workforce and the management of the government.
SHERWOODI talked to -- I didn't actually talk to her. I exchanged e-mails with Elissa Silverman of the Fiscal Policy Institute, which is a group that...
NNAMDIWell, she bugged you too, huh?
SHERWOOD...advocates for -- remember her? Right?
NNAMDIShe bugged you too, huh.
SHERWOODWell -- and you too.
NNAMDII got the email too.
SHERWOODBut she advocates for, you know...
SHERWOOD...social service programs. And there's great fear among a lot of nonprofits and social service groups that the soft belly of the budget is going to be social service programs. Can you give us -- I know you don't want to preempt the mayor, but can you give us any guidance of how tough those cuts are going to be?
LEWWell, I'm not going to preempt the mayor, Tom, but I -- they're -- we're looking at all programs, and we're not looking to -- we're looking -- the goal would be to be able to deliver the services and maintain a standard of excellence, at the same time, to tighten our belt and look for ways to streamline operations that in some cases have not been performing to the public's expectation.
NNAMDI...Elissa's questions is that Mayor Gray told WAMU 88.5's Patrick Madden, he won't raise income or property tax rates, but there are other ways to raise revenues. What does that mean?
LEWYou know, I'm going to leave that to him. There's a -- you know, I mean, there are fees, and there are other, you know, areas where there could be, you know, increases in revenues. Councilmember Cheh has proposed an aggressive debt collection effort, and, you know, there are probably on the books hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of uncollected bills and -- from parking fines to -- and some cases, it could be just fees that haven't been paid by various vendors.
NNAMDIIf you put on your headphones, there's a listener, Kate, who, I think, wants to ask precisely about that, but I could be wrong. Here is Kate. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. KATE REEDHi, Kojo. This is Kate Reed. Hi, Mr. Lew. How are you?
LEWHi. How are you doing?
REEDWell, let me tell you what Mary Cheh is not going to do.
REEDNumber one, there is a situation, myself included, where many of the residents have been harassed about these parking tickets that the District basically has a program where they will shred your documents, your records. Even the IRS asks you to hold your records for seven years, and nobody is holding their parking -- paid parking tickets for a long time. Now, there -- that you have the ability to hold up people's driver's licenses if you don't pay the tickets and all this business, and that's all good and wonderful if you want to go to Virginia (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIHas that happened to you, Kate? Is that the situation you're going to describe?
KATEYeah. Well -- yeah. But I'm a big girl, Kojo. So you know I went and dealt with it, but let me simply say this. There is a thing called the doctrine of laches. It means that you sleep on your rights. Now, if your guys can't go in there and in 10 and 12 years collect parking tickets, you're not going to go back all of a sudden and harass the citizens because you need money now, and you're gonna go and try to hold them up like with a gun in your hand...
NNAMDIIs that what you...
KATE...in order to get the money.
NNAMDIAllen Lew, is that what you were talking about in terms of getting revenues?
LEWNo. I don't think we're talking about holding a gun or doing any of what was just described.
SHERWOODWell, here -- there is a program the city has contracted out with a private company. I don't know if it's AES or whoever it is, to go back and get -- collect uncollected parking tickets. And for a while, people we're getting them back to the 1990s. I don't know -- there is no apparent statute of limitation. I think the caller was suggesting after 10 or more years, you wouldn't keep the record that you paid a parking ticket or that you didn't pay it. So is there a limit on how far back you can go on parking tickets?
LEWWell, my understanding is also that some of these unpaid fines or tickets do date back to the mid or late '90s. And -- but I -- we're looking at -- I think the councilmember's proposal wasn't so much just to go aggressively to collect the fines, but I think she was also looking at a structural change, where the collection effort is much more coordinated, more centralized, so it's not so dispersed. Right now, there's probably dozens of agencies that have some role or some mission, which includes the collection of fines and, you know, fees that may have been unpaid for, literally, more than a decade.
SHERWOODIt works pretty well for people who have a D.C. tag because you can't get it renewed immediately. They know you haven't paid them. But if you're an out-of-state person who comes into town, you don't pay your tickets, you don't pay them, you don't pay them, your only threat is to get booted if they find you, and that doesn't always happen.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Allen Lew, he is city administrator for the District of Columbia. It's the "Politics Hour" starring Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst, an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Allen Lew, let's get into some of the stories that have been dragging the administration down so far, and let's start with the HR stuff. You testified at a hearing about salary levels within the administration earlier this month.
NNAMDIThe mayor has decided to roll back the salaries of people that exceeded mandated caps, but we're still talking about pretty high salaries with the rolled back payroll. Your chief of staff, for example, still makes more than $190,000 a year. As the person in charge of making sure the city runs smoothly, how do you justify these pay levels?
LEWWell, I think the -- in some cases, when you refer to my chief of staff, the -- his salary was actually higher in his role when he worked with me on the Public Education Facilities Modernization Office. And it -- the mayor believes in paying for higher quality and more experienced professionals. And, in some cases, the numbers are lower than what might have been paid, I think, or was paid by Mayor Gray's predecessor. And in some -- in other cases, it is higher, and it's -- but it's a reflection of the marketplace and the individual.
NNAMDII was about to ask, where do you think salary levels fit in to how the city needs to compete for topflight talent for public jobs?
LEWWell, there are certain positions that I think the mayor believes that should be paid a certain level, and then there are other positions, I think, that he has, you know, that he feels shouldn't fall into the cap. You know, they tend to -- for instance, the chancellor's position, they tend to be driven by how the competing, you know, jurisdictions and sometimes other cities and how they pay -- how they compensate their superintendent or chancellor.
SHERWOODAnd I realized you're not supposed to be the political person, but for the mayor to have a chief of staff and pay her $200,000, which is the same salary as the mayor. Now frankly, I can make an argument that a chief of staff or a $10 billion manager of a government is not that expensive but politically, it is.
NNAMDISomebody made the point that that was more than the president's last chief of staff was making.
SHERWOODThere you have it. So it's called public service, I think, is the -- what people ask you to do. But, you know, I think you guys do recognize the political vulnerability that you guys have for these salaries.
LEWWe recognize that, and I think that -- and even in the case that you just referred to, I believe she was compensated much more in her previous capacity. But we're sensitive to these issues, and I don't really think that we're being, you know, capricious about it. The mayor is looking to bring in the best people. If you actually look at his budget or when you look at his budget when he unveils it, you'll see that the -- that in some cases, the salaries may be higher for a certain individual for certain particular positions, but overall, that office or that unit is operating under a lower budget than the previous administration.
SHERWOODAnd I don't wanna go into it too much, but, you know, several reporters are asking about the Department of Employment Services director, Rochelle Webb, who came from Arizona. Apparently, she stayed for an undetermined amount of time at the W Hotel downtown, had a driver for one or two months. I'm not sure how long. That's over now. But I just think that when the budget comes out and these community groups come before the council and worry about their cuts, they're gonna say, well, what about the director of Employment Services? What about the chief of staff and the salaries that they get and the perks they get?
SHERWOODThis seems to put you in kind of a bad spot.
LEWThe director of Employment Services, Dr. Webb, I know there's been recent articles about the expenses for her relocation. But the District law speaks of a reasonable pre-employment travel and relocation expenses, such as temporary housing allowances, and I believe it's limited to a 60-day period.
SHERWOODAnd $181 a day or something like that. But it's the W Hotel. I mean, that's one of the fanciest hotels in town in terms of, you know, people who would like to dress up and go drink on the roof.
LEWWell, maybe so. I haven't been up there to dance and...
SHERWOODNor have I.
NNAMDIAnd drinking on the roof. (laugh)
LEWAnd be drinking on the roof. But it is near -- close to the, you know, close to the Wilson Building, and then also...
SHERWOODSo is the Residence Inn at Thomas Circle.
LEWWell, I'm not -- you may be right. I -- there -- I have some comparables, and many of the hotels that are nearby are actually charging more than the $181 that was paid by the city for Ms. Webb.
NNAMDIAs someone who has drank on the roof of the W Hotel, I'd say we move on to Daniel in Ward 4. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELHi. Thank you for having me. My question for Mr. Lew -- I'm a resident of Ward 4, and I filled out the mayor's online budget survey. And I'm curious how much impact that will have on the mayor's considerations and if he's planning to release the results of that survey before the budget, because I believe that our city just can't afford more cuts to social services. And I encourage the mayor to include new progressive revenue in his budget.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by new progressive revenue, Daniel?
DANIELI mean, for myself, I believe that the $40,000 tax bracket as the highest marginal tax rate in the city is just not fair.
NNAMDISo you're talking about more new taxes or higher taxes?
SHERWOODA millionaire's tax...
SHERWOOD...or people who make...
DANIELI'm -- personally, I'm talking about new brackets for the highest income earners in the city who...
DANIEL...really should be bearing more of the cost of this recession.
NNAMDIOkay. Here is Allen Lew.
LEWOkay. The survey actually -- the outcome of the survey, you know, I think you'll see in the results, you know, shows that, you know, more than half of the responders -- respondents...
LEW...respondents showed over 50 percent saw education as the first priority and then public safety slightly behind that, human resources, third in line, with about a third of -- about 33 percent. And then government operations and public works, which I really think is really -- could be combined as one category, another 33 percent with economic development trailing in at 20 -- about 22 percent. Most of these -- I think the results pretty much track the way we were thinking already. And certainly, it also tracks much of the discussion that the mayor had with the cabinet over the weekend.
NNAMDIHas the mayor, as far as you know, considered looking at the tax brackets that Daniel talked about, the higher tax brackets? Has the mayor considered the possibility of raising taxes in the higher tax brackets?
LEWAll of these are on the table. All of these considerations are on the table, and so I am not going to speak for the mayor on this. But I -- every -- you know, all, you know, all -- I mean, it's just almost common sense that we consider, you know, revenues and -- as well as expense and how do we tighten up the budget but also, at the same time, not necessarily sacrifice programs that are really important to the city.
NNAMDIDaniel, thank you very much for your call.
SHERWOODYou know, my only complaint about the survey, which I wrote about this week, is that the number -- the categories are too broad. It's like, do you like ice cream? Do you like chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream? You -- do you want more police officers? Do you want better education? Well, actually, as you know, people want all of those things. There are no choices there. All of those have to be done.
LEWI agree with you. And even in our discussions at the mayor's retreat with the cabinet this weekend, each of these categories were probably broken down into maybe six different headings or subheadings. In some cases, even more. And there were some kind of informal polls taken, you know, in terms of priorities and what -- which programs we thought were critical and which ones were less critical.
SHERWOODFor example, like the police department. Is -- the police department, apparently, is nowhere near its, what, 4,200 maximum number of officers, uniformed officers.
SHERWOODIt's closer to 3,800.
SHERWOODSo is it gonna stay that way or is the city gonna go on a hiring plan? Or do you think we have enough?
LEWWe're looking at it. And I think we -- this issue came up at a breakfast with the mayor and the council a couple of days ago. And the, you know, we talked about the attrition rate, you know, the monthly attrition rate, you know, just -- they hover around 15 or so. Sometimes, it drops a little bit below that, maybe sometimes it's much higher. But we're looking at what we have to do to maintain the police force.
SHERWOODBecause you know what will happen, as soon as there's some big horrendous crime, every news organization in town will look at the police numbers and say, why haven't you hired people? Then we'll be back to rush (unintelligible) .
LEWWell, I think we would rather -- we certainly would rather be proactive as opposed to just react to various incidents and events.
NNAMDIMayor Fenty spent more than a billion dollars on the school modernization program that you headed up for him. Money has now gotten a lot tighter, and there's still a lot of promises to be kept as far as schools that are on the list for improvements. How do you think the city is going to manage that? Council Chairman Kwame Brown says he's really concerned about whether or not we're gonna have the money to be able to complete those things on time as you had a reputation for doing.
LEWWe believe we do have the monies to move forward. The school effort is a huge momentum that's been -- that started in the last few years. And the expectations are even higher than they were four years ago. Various parts of the community that have seen, they were all accustomed to deteriorated buildings and facilities that were not kept, you know, not maintained well. And now, I think, the example of buildings that were recently built and renovated have actually created even more pressure to rebuild the remaining schools across the entire city.
SHERWOODA comment on that in the e-census figures, people are staying, coming to the city, people are staying, people are -- because of economy or because of simply the schools are better, people are putting their kids in school, and they are demanding -- you've created more of a demand by fixing some of the schools.
LEWWell, we -- actually, I believe that education is probably one of the most important factors in economic development. That if -- when you talk to businesses, companies, in other parts of the other country or maybe even abroad, and the first thing that comes to mind is, how are the schools? And it's one thing for the CEO of a company to say that I'd like to move into this -- I'd like to move to the nation's capital or relocate his company. But once he goes back to his office and talks to his staff, the first thing that comes to mind is what about the schools? And I really do believe and I think what this administration is, you know, is 150 percent behind this, that school reform is critical to the life's blood of the city.
NNAMDILet me see if we can get Aaron in McLean, Va., on. Aaron? No, Aaron -- we can't get Aaron on at this point. We're gonna have to wait for later in the conversation before we can get to Aaron. Before we move on, you and Bill Howland, the city's director of Public Works, testified to the city council that Chairman Kwame Brown put in a request for a fully loaded Lincoln Navigator just hours after he won election as city council chairman. For the benefit of our listeners, why would Brown put in that kind of request to you, and why would he check in with you about the status of that kind of request? Can you explain to our listeners what your office has to do with these kinds of issues?
LEWWell, he didn't actually request the vehicle from me. He had actually requested it in the last administration and from the last city administrator. And he was working with Bill Howland, who is also director of Public Works during the Fenty -- Adrian Fenty administration as well as now with the Vince Gray administration.
SHERWOODYou, kind of, came in in the middle of the movie on that controversy in terms of...
LEWIt was almost like the movie -- you already selected the movie, you're in the theater and someone is asking, is someone gonna pick up some popcorn or something. I mean, the selection was already made. The tickets were bought. The purchase order was already in place. The first vehicle had been rejected by the council chairman. The second vehicle was already ordered. And it was a question of whether the vehicle would arrive in a week or two weeks. And so when I asked that question, it was already a done deal.
SHERWOODSo we're waiting to see how much it costs, and the chairman has said he will pay back the cost that can be associated with whatever he did in terms of those cars. But you are also going to look to make certain that the city had a good handle on the cars that are being leased and purchased. And are you confident you have that handled now?
LEWYou know, we -- the mayor -- Mayor Gray had asked that the city administrator review all of the policies and regulations in governing use of vehicles and, you know, whether leased vehicles or purchased vehicles, and just the operational procedures that affect, you know, the use of vehicles and who drives it. And I think along the way, we need to also address issues in terms of efficiencies and not just simply assume that everyone who needs to get from a place, from A to B, they need to have a vehicle.
SHERWOODAnd certainly not a brand-new one.
LEWAnd not a brand-new one. You need to understand, if you'll actually look at the history of the fleet, there are vehicles that are still in the fleet that were acquired in the '90s, late '90s.
SHERWOODRight. And those are the one that rank-and-file workers are using.
LEWWell, yes, probably, but not all. I know that there were folks that were driving relatively new utility vehicles. Most of vehicles in the fleet are not Lincoln Navigators as you know. There are pick-up trucks, utility vehicles, vehicles used for public works, for the school system to deliver things and...
SHERWOODBut the SUVs look a lot better on TV when we're doing those stories.
NNAMDIYeah, right. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers who drives a fully loaded vehicle of his own.
SHERWOODWhich I paid for -- which is paid for. It's 2000 Ford.
NNAMDISee? And that was just a complete guess on my part. See?
SHERWOODWell, because I am...
NNAMDIGuilty parties every time. Allen Lew is city administrator for the District of Columbia. Allen Lew, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIYou're listening to the "Politics...
SHERWOODYou let him off easy.
NNAMDI...Hour." Before we get to our next guest, the president of the Montgomery County Council, you may wanna start calling with questions about the Montgomery County budgets from now on. 800-433-8850. Tom Sherwood, one of the issues we discussed last week was about requiring elementary and middle school students in the Commonwealth of Virginia to participate in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week. Gov. Bob McDonnell vetoed the bill requiring that, describing the proposal as an unfunded mandate on Virginia schools, which is exactly the point that Del. Dave Albo was making here last week.
SHERWOODIt was an unfunded mandate. And that's a problem. And it's the very big -- it's a high hurdle in Virginia politics. I think everyone agrees. I don't know of anyone who says our kids are getting enough exercise, or they're eating the proper foods in cafeterias. But for the governor to say, well, if we do this, then we'll have to hire more physical education teachers, we'll have to change schedules around that require expenses. And there's no money to do any of that. I do think that the...
NNAMDIAnd there was a parade of school officials who made that argument. And they, apparently, were persuasive.
SHERWOODWell, I think what we're seeing is the progression of these issues, like in the city where Mary Cheh, I think it was -- or one of the council members who'd said...
SHERWOOD...let's take some of the junk out of the vending machines. Let's improve the foods in the cafeterias. Let's get the kids up and out of their chairs more often. I remember as a child back in -- before recorded time, you know, we would get up in our classrooms and walk around the classroom, and we would do things because the teacher realized if we did 10 minutes of exercise, we would be more calmed down. Well, she would think most of us would be calmed down for the rest of the class period.
NNAMDIWell, the first lady of the United States and the first lady of the Commonwealth of Virginia have both invested fairly heavily, at least in terms of a bully pulpit, of talking about exercises and health for children. So in some corners, it was a surprise that Gov. McDonnell apparently vetoed this.
SHERWOODWell, I think he can make -- I think he make a fiscal argument for it, but I do think the trend, the inexorable trend, is towards better health for young people.
NNAMDIAnd I'll bet you our next guest did not know that during the days when Elizabeth Taylor was married to Sen. John Warner in this area that Tom Sherwood was a reporter even then.
SHERWOODYou know, I think I went to the opening of that movie that she was starred in with a horse, whatever it's called, "Black Stallion" or whatever it was. You know, I can't remember. I'm not...
NNAMDIA movie with a horse.
SHERWOODYou know, she -- that's before she became famous as a child actress.
SHERWOODI can't remember. I just remembered the horse running down the field. But, you know, she was, you know, she was a big deal here.
NNAMDIWere you covering the Commonwealth of Virginia back in those days?
SHERWOODNo, I was not here.
NNAMDIYou were not here back in those days?
NNAMDII thought you were here.
SHERWOOD...you know, the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, as much as we might joke about it, is significant for this region. She did a great deal in HIV/AIDS issue. She was married to John Warner, one of her eight marriages. She brought a lot of style and panache to that world. And she was -- I think she got a Kennedy Center Honor too. Didn't she? I'm not sure.
NNAMDII am not sure about that...
SHERWOODBut she should have.
NNAMDI...even though I was a reporter here during that time.
SHERWOODAnd she had an unbelievably interesting life.
NNAMDIWell, our next guest was unaware of this, all of this. So I thought I would allow you as the institutional memory here to remind us of it. Our next guest is the president of the Montgomery County Council. Valerie Ervin is a Democrat whose district includes Kensington, Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Wheaton. She joins us in studio. Valerie Ervin, thank you for joining us.
MS. VALERIE ERVINThanks for asking me to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Montgomery County Council's president, call us at 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question there. Montgomery County gets called a lot of things, including the People's Republic of Montgomery County, so it's not exactly the kind of place one would expect for a showdown to take place between the government, public employees and schools, but here we are. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this budget, what do you think brought us to this point?
ERVINFirst of all, let me just correct you on one thing and that is Montgomery County isn't called the People's Republic. That's the City of Takoma Park.
NNAMDII knew you'd say Takoma Park. I knew you'd put it on Takoma Park. Okay, go ahead. You're right.
SHERWOODWhich is part of her district.
ERVINIt is. I do represent Takoma Park.
ERVINSo the question is how do we get to this place where unions and public employees and the government...
ERVIN...and schools are all at odds with each other, and it's a very complicated situation. But right now, the county executive sent over a budget to the county council last week where he was trying to close a $300 million budget deficit. And I think he did a fairly good job of proposing how he would close it. However, now that the council has a budget, there are a few things that we're looking at that we think are extraordinarily important. Number one is the equity issue between county employees. So one-third of our county employees are being asked to shoulder the burden of the budget on them, while two-thirds of county employees on the school system side are not. It's the same song, different day as last year. So...
SHERWOODAnd the school system employees have the strongest union and most politically active group.
NNAMDIThe school system decides its own benefit levels and you, it is my understanding, don't like that especially in a tight budget crunch.
ERVINIt's not that we don't like it. It's that the school system is challenging the voter-approved charter authority of the county executive and the county council. And they're doing that by going to the State Board of Education with a declaratory judgment which would determine at the end of the day who has final authority over the budget.
NNAMDIEarlier this month, the school board submitted a legal filing with the Maryland State Board of Education as part of that dispute over the county's violation of state spending rules alleged. The board is essentially arguing that the council is toothless to cut school funding below the figure proposed by county council -- by county executive Isaiah Leggett. You had expressed extreme disappointment with that maneuver.
ERVINYes, I'm extremely disappointed. I, first of all, served on the board of education prior to being elected to the county council. I know their budget very well. I chaired the council's education committee. Council -- the council is in a position right now to fund the budget under some very difficult constraints. And because there's a law, a state law called maintenance of effort, which requires a base funding level for all school systems in the state of Maryland, that worked fine before counties began to experience budget difficulties and...
NNAMDIAnd you'd like to amend that maintenance of effort law.
ERVINWe would like to change it. We would like to amend it because we are not opposed to the intent of the law, which the intent of the law is to require local funding to be at a certain level. But what's happened is that the school system's budget continues to grow, and it's growing based on the fact that in Montgomery County, our school system has grown about 6,000 students over the last four years. So every time you get more students, you're gonna pay more money. So you have a budget that's about 57 percent school system and the rest of the budget is being constrained.
ERVINAnd so this is -- gives rise to a lot of problems -- how we fund public safety, libraries, transportation, recreation. None of those other agencies have a maintenance of effort that protects their budget. So while the school system's budget grows, the rest of the county government shrinks.
NNAMDIYou're on the record as saying that there's a chasm that exist between county employees and school system employees. Where do you think is the starting point for the conversation to bridge those differences?
ERVINGreat question. I think the starting point is the conversation between all the public employee unions. So you have three unions on the school system side and you have three unions on the public employee side. I have begun those conversations, and I have been speaking to the presidents of those unions for a couple of weeks now. And the chasm exist when you have one-third of the employees being asked to cut salaries, benefits, take furloughs and layoffs -- excuse me -- while the other side of that ledger, actually in their budget, the school system is asking for raises for teachers.
NNAMDIHere's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODWell, you know, in the city and other places, schools have people -- more money for schools. It's one of those things everyone agrees that the schools essentially could use more money. They don't necessarily need more money. Where are you in that? I know they could use more money, but do they need more money? Do they need better management?
ERVINGreat question again. Do they need more money? It depends on who you ask. The county council and the county executive over the last decade have funded the school system almost $600 million over maintenance of effort. And we believe that we have indicated our desire to continue to support the school system when we can. We're in a situation right now where it's almost impossible for us to continue to fund it at the level that we've been funding it.
SHERWOODPeople may not realize how big this system is. How many students are in the Montgomery County school system?
SHERWOODI was talking to --I'll warn you -- I was talking to Jeffrey Slavin, mayor of Somerset who I've known for many years.
SHERWOODFair warning. But he actually had nice things to say about you and he confessed he was your treasurer in your campaign.
ERVINHe is. Yes.
SHERWOODOkay. But he said -- he was telling me that there are more children receiving subsidized breakfast or lunch -- I'm not sure exactly -- subsidized food in Montgomery County, which has this big image of being rich, than there are kids entirely in the District of Columbia school system.
ERVINI'm really glad you brought that up because it's an issue. Montgomery County is getting poorer, and we're also now a majority minority county. So the kinds of students that we're serving has changed an extraordinary amount over the last decade. And so, you know, there are a lot of issues here in the school system that we're gonna have to address, but one of them is going to be how big the budget needs to be. And the fact of the matter until we change this maintenance of effort law in some ways, we're gonna be in this conversation year after year until something happens.
NNAMDIAnd I do have to tell our listeners that at a later date, we'll be having someone from the school system to make its case on the broadcast. But since you're actually on a show for the first time today that people actually listen to, we have phone calls. Here is Gino in Gaithersburg, Md. Gino, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
GINOYes. Madam president, as you referenced, there are pretty significant inequities among the county agencies in the area of wages, benefit levels and the cost employees pay for their benefits. The executive's budget as proposed would exacerbate these inequities. What's your thoughts on that and how can we deal with that ongoing challenge?
NNAMDIThose are the thoughts she's been expressing here for the last 10 minutes or so, but please, make your expression this time brief.
NNAMDIYes. Thank you.
ERVINThe council now has a budget, and we are very concerned about these equity issues. And it has been expressed to be -- to me by other council members that they cannot vote for a budget that continues to separate one group of employees from another group of employees. So what we're looking at doing is trying to come to some sort of a balance in terms of the pretty deep cuts to county employees, and I'm talking about police, firefighters and all the public employees on one side of the ledger. And so, we have eight weeks left before we have to present a balanced budget, and that is probably gonna be our primary issue.
NNAMDIGino, thank you for your call. Here now is Anna in Silver Spring, Md. Anna, your turn.
ANNAHi. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak. I would like to address the notion of a disparity between the sacrifices made by county employees and MCPS employees. I actually -- I work for one of the unions...
NNAMDIMCPS being Montgomery County Public Schools. Go ahead, please.
ANNAYes. I work for one of the unions that represent employees in Montgomery County Public Schools, the supporting service employees -- those are paraeducators, bus drivers, media assistants, everybody but teachers and administrators. And our members have sacrificed significantly. We just don't broadcast it. Our paraeducators, a lot of them have lost 25 percent of their hours, 30 percent, up to 50 percent in the last two years. That's losing half of your paycheck. We would take four days of furloughs in a heartbeat over top of these sorts of cuts.
NNAMDIWhat is your objection, Anna, to Valerie Ervin's suggestion that there should be a conversation between the unions -- both of the school system and the unions representing other government employees -- to arrive at some level of equity?
ANNAI have no objection to that. In fact, I would love that. I would love for -- and everyone here at Local 500 -- SEIU Local 500 is my union -- would love to sit down at the table. And if the county council is willing to broker that sort of thing, I would love that. But what we have right now is certain members of the county council perpetuating the sort of, you know, insight. And we should be standing together and finding solutions and looking at ways of improving...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Valerie Ervin respond.
ERVINWell, I really appreciate the caller's comments because I am engaged in those conversations right now as a council president. But I do wanna say to the caller that I appreciate what she's saying about the paraeducators and the bus drivers. But I think that you need to go back to the leadership of SEIU Local 500 because that story is not being told. We are hearing not necessarily from the members who are on the lowest end of the pay scale on the teacher -- on the MCPS side. We're hearing from the more powerful, as some would say, of the unions, and that is the teacher's union. So I really appreciate the comment from you. We are engaged in those conversations and will be throughout the rest of the year.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Valerie Ervin, president of the Montgomery County Council. She is a Democrat. Here's Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODYou know, I wanna go back to the change in Montgomery County because there's a class -- not just in Montgomery County, but even in the suburban Arlington, Va., and Maryland, Fairfax, that a lot of the poor people -- it's kind of a European model -- a lot of the poorer people are moving from the inner city into the near suburbs. And we're gonna have a situation where the District of Columbia may well become the Manhattan of the region, where you had to be pretty well-to-do or completely dependent on the government to live here. And then the closed-in suburbs will be where some of our poorest and most neediest people live.
ERVINWe are seeing that trend, and I've been seeing it for a long time, at least a decade. And I think it's really a surprise when people, looking at Montgomery County, see it has changed so dramatically. And so the issues that we're gonna have to deal with are gonna be different kinds of issues. We have a majority minority population right now, and many of those folks who are moving into our county are relying on county assistance. And we are, right now, trying to uphold a safety net for those people. That safety net might be jeopardized by this budget.
SHERWOODAnd even those who are not in need of service. But if you have more Latinos and Asian, there are language issues and others kinds of things which are adding to the cost of the school system.
ERVINAbsolutely. And as we change -- and, you know, we're reading about the District of Columbia changing and Prince George's County changing, all the closed-in suburbs -- it's fascinating 'cause it's got political ramifications, as you know, as well.
SHERWOODWhat about a Wisconsin solution? Just cut all the public employee unions and give them what you think they deserve.
ERVINNo, we're not going in that direction. We would rather get to it the way that I have proposed.
NNAMDIShe would be run out of Takoma Park.
SHERWOODHow would you ask that question?
ERVINI would be run out of Montgomery County. And, you know, I come from unions. I was a union organizer, so I have a very close relationship to unions. But I'm in a position right now where I'm representing a million residents of Montgomery County, and the solutions are gonna have to be different kinds of solutions.
NNAMDISpeaking of unions, here is Steve in Gaithersburg, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEI was gonna talk about the unions, but I think you kinda covered it well. And...
NNAMDIOkay. See you later, Steve. No, go ahead. Go ahead, Steve.
STEVEI was gonna say one of the things is -- Valerie, you're talking about the changes in Montgomery County that I think you've been doing well, and I think we have to do more of is really to educate the people around the state about just how different Montgomery County is and how, you know, different it is in terms of ability to sort of fund some of the things. And we've had a challenge with state funding for many years. I know you're spending a lot of time really working with the folks in Annapolis. And I wonder if you can speak a little bit to that about how really the state needs to be a part of the solution for Montgomery County, which is really an engine for the state.
ERVINI have been spending a lot of time in Annapolis, and it's really interesting. Around the state of Maryland, there is a concept about Montgomery County as being the, you know, the county on the hill where the streets are paved in gold.
ERVINFat cats. And we are not. And as a matter of fact, when people see me, an African-American woman who's president of the council -- it's the first time a black woman has ever served in this role, first time a black woman has ever been elected to the county council -- there's a whole conversation that's ensuing around the state of Maryland about the changes in our county and what we need to be able to succeed. So I appreciate the caller's call. And we're doing all that we can to tell another story about the new Montgomery County.
NNAMDIWe have had a plastic bag fee in the District of Columbia for a while now, and it's something that's been floated in the Maryland State House and in Montgomery County. One of your colleagues took to the pages of the Sunday Washington Post to stand up against it last weekend. How do you feel about the idea of a plastic bag tax or fee, or whatever you wanna call it? It's an issue that we'll be discussing on this broadcast on Monday. But I'd like to hear your point of view now.
ERVINWe'll, I've been following what the District of Columbia has done in this regard. And there is a move under way in Montgomery County to pass a bag tax. I hate the term tax, but I think it's really important to teach people to be environmental stewards. And to me, this is the best approach of all. And I'm going to really advocate that we marry, as close as possible, the D.C. bag tax, which -- the part I like most about it is that the District partnered with CVS to provide bags, as many bags as people thought they would need.
SHERWOODSafeway, CVS, several others, yeah.
ERVINSafeway. Okay, I didn't know how many others.
NNAMDII now have space for riders only in the front seat of my car. The back seat is for bags.
SHERWOODAnd also you get a rebate. I was at a store the other day. I had three reusable bags. So instead of being charged 15 cents, they took 15 cents off my bill.
ERVINI love it. And I think the right approach -- this is the right approach. We're teaching environmental stewardship. I serve on the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and we know, in order to begin to clean up the bay, we're gonna have to do all that we can. And this is one of the best ways I know to do it.
SHERWOODAnd -- but -- Tommy Wells, the council member who did it, the bag tax in the city, hates this. But I always say this to everybody who mentions the bag. I really believe the clean-up of the bay and the clean-up of the Anacostia and all the other places, once somebody starts talking about a deposit fee for bottles and cans.
ERVINAbsolutely. I'm with you on that one, too.
SHERWOODAnd I don't know if people are serious about it.
NNAMDITom Sherwood running for county council in Montgomery County.
SHERWOODI'm not saying I'm (word?). I'm just saying I'm waiting to see it brought up.
NNAMDIWe got this e-mail from a Silver Spring resident. "The county executive proposed raising property tax rates because the recent assessment essentially lowered the overall tax bill for property owners. Is the council in support of the increase in the rate, and how would you justify the increase in rate?"
ERVINWe're very concerned about the increase in the rate. And I know that the county executive had a method to his plan, and that is because...
NNAMDIWell, the phrase is method to his madness.
ERVINI wasn't gonna say that. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou hear that, Ike?
ERVIN(laugh) He's proposing raising the property tax rate, which still keeps the rate under the charter limit. But it's going to cost people more money in their tax bill. So the council only has eight weeks to take all of this up. We're very concerned. We're hearing from a lot of residents that think this is not fair. So, again, we're just now receiving the budget. We've had it for a little over a week. This is one of the primary items of concern among me and my colleagues on the council.
SHERWOODYou have a lot of not fair issues to deal with.
ERVINWe have a lot of not fair issues, yes.
NNAMDIAnd when we discuss the bag tax on Monday, one of our guests will be Councilmember Nancy Floreen, who wrote the formerly mentioned op-ed in last week's Washington Post, opposing the bag tax. Valerie Ervin is president of the Montgomery County Council. She's a Democrat. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Tom, always a pleasure.
SHERWOODThank you. And I apologize for my allergies.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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