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PHOTO GALLERY: Leggett Gets the Goat of County Employees

Union members at a Thursday rally said the county executive's budget is 'scapegoating' them.

About 250 members of the county employees' union rallied at in Rockville Town Center on Thursday, including about 50 union members who—chanting and waving cow bells and protest signs—marched to Isiah Leggett's office in an unsuccessful attempt to meet with the county executive.

The rally, held on the plaza outside the building, was in response to Leggett's proposal last week of a $4.35 billion fiscal 2012 operating budget that omits negotiated pay raises for county employees and calls on employees to bear more of the cost of their benefits.

The rally included music, speeches by union leaders and by rank and file members and the appearance of two goats, which union leaders used to highlight their claim that Leggett (D) is making county employees into scapegoats for the county's $300 million budget deficit.

Union members attempted to draw parallels between the situation in Montgomery County and that of Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget stripped state workers of collective bargaining rights. Members chanted "What's disgusting?/Union busting!"a slogan also used by public employees protesting budget cuts in Madison, WI last month.

After about 90 minutes, with the crowd of union members dwindling, some of the remaining members marched into the building and up to Leggett's office in an attempt to deliver an oversized fake check for $25 million—the amount that union leaders say they conceded to the county for the fiscal 2012 budget.

Leggett's proposal does not include pay raises or cost of living adjustments that were negotiated with the union and proposes increasing the amount that county employees would contribute to their group health insurance to 30 percent—a 10 percent increase. Employees also would pay an additional 2 percent into their retirement plans and the county’s retirement contribution would decrease by 2 percent.

Union officials on Thursday said that the proposal also includes an additional health insurance surcharge on higher-salaried employees.

The "biweekly surcharge" is equal to $35 per pay period for employees making $50,000 a year, said Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994/Municipal and County Government Employees Organization.

Union leaders and consultants are meeting with members of the Montgomery County Council to discuss budget alternatives, Renne said. The County Council must approve the budget by June 1.

Union proposals are gaining traction with council members, Renne said.

"We're walking them through the numbers. We're walking them through the rationale," he said. "I suspect that when it's all said and done, it'll look different than what it is now—than what Ike's proposed and probably what we've proposed."

The union is working with the council to identify immediate budget savings for fiscal 2012 and to develop a way to realize long-term saving on employee pension and health care cuts while protecting salaries, Renne said.

"I know that we're getting traction with the council," he said. "To their credit, they're listening and they're open to good ideas. And they have some good ideas as well. And hopefully between the council and the unions working together, we can come up with a plan that we can all live with."

The proposed cuts would mean a pay reduction for county employees of $3,600 to $6,000, depending on salary, Renne said.

"Our people cannot afford to lose that kind of money," he said.

We should be looking at best practices that have been tested and proven to be productive—and there's plenty of them to look at—in order to strengthen the pension fund, to relieve the burden on the workers, as well as the taxpayers," Renne said. "And that can be done."

Meanwhile, the union plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint against Leggett next week, Renne said. Just how and where the complaint will be filed will be left up to union lawyers, he said.

"I can tell you that we're probably going to step our game up a bit and see if we can get it into court. We're not quite sure yet, but they'll make that decision," Renne said.

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