More than 80 cents of every taxpayer dollar spent in Montgomery County is essentially approved behind closed doors during negotiations with employees unions, an arrangement that leaves the public in the dark and hampers efforts to rein in spending, critics contend. County Council members, who have final budget authority, are targeting employee compensation and benefits -- identified as the cause of the suburb's massive deficits -- for long-term savings. But they have little idea if County Executive Ike Leggett is following suit during ongoing talks with union negotiators.

Councilman: 'Every employee will take home less'
A Montgomery County Councilman says all county employees should brace for smaller paychecks, through either reduced wages or benefits in the coming year.
"There's going to be big changes this year," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large. "My prediction is that every employee will take home less in their paycheck in 2012 than 2011. We're not doing that because we want to but because we have to."
Over the past decade, employee benefits increased more than 120 percent, while salaries grew 50 percent. The county is facing a more than $300 million shortfall next fiscal year.
Leventhal and Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large, planned to introduce legislation Tuesday that would place each employee in the same health care plan, but County Council President Valerie Ervin will not allow the bill on the council agenda, saying all changes to employee compensation should be introduced at once.

"It's bizarre," said Councilman Marc Elrich, D-at large. "We never see the bargaining. All we ever hear about is the end result. Does that make any sense? With things as fundamentally broken as they are, everybody needs to sit in the same room and map our road forward."

Council members can reject labor contracts but have generally approved every deal sent to them by the county executive.

Pay and benefits now account for 82 percent of all tax-supported spending, and the average county employee makes roughly $100,000 each year when benefits are included.

Union leaders, however, say allowing the public to watch them hammer out deals would destroy the integrity of negotiating.

"People play to audiences," said Gino Renne, president of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization. "If the public is in the room, the politicians will play to that. It would become a circus. It's so hypocritical. They spent money like drunken sailors and all the sudden they are the responsible ones."

Nearly two dozen states have laws that allow for some form of public access to bargaining with employees.

Executive branch officials have been negotiating with unions in recent months, and Renne said he expected talks to conclude around the middle of February.

But Leggett's office has provided few updates -- at least publicly -- on the process.

Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield previously told The Washington Examiner, "We don't negotiate labor agreements in the paper."

And some council members defended the secrecy of the meetings.

"If I were a journalist, I would believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large. "But negotiations are sensitive. Sometimes they need to be able to negotiate outside the view of the bright lights."