Mary Cheh
Mary Cheh

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Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh caught more than a few people off guard today with a proposal to freeze pay increases for all city employees (except for members of the Washington Teachers Union) as a way of saving about $11 million.

Cheh is proposing “eliminating all within-grade step increases and cost-of-living adjustments” for District employees, which would break some of the collective bargaining agreements the District has with labor unions. (The amount of the raises Cheh would freeze varies depending on which department city workers are in.)

“Breaking the District’s promises to unionized employees risks losing their trust. Nevertheless, in the current economic climate we recognize that shared sacrifice by all is warranted,” Cheh’s committee report says.

At a committee hearing today, Cheh’s proposal was swiftly shot down by Councilmembers Harry Thomas Jr., Michael A. Brown, and Tommy Wells.

Thomas said Cheh’s proposal was unconstitutional, and the labor unions hadn’t even had a chance to respond to her idea.

Wells said it looked to him that Cheh was trying to find enough money off the backs of the city’s lower paid workers (“trash haulers, the garbage truck folk, all the folk that do not make that much money”) so the council wouldn’t have to pass the mayor’s proposed income tax increase for those making $200,000 or more.

And Brown didn’t say anything LL thought was worth taking notes on.

What’s interesting in this whole episode is that Cheh appears to have just sprung this proposal on everyone, by putting it in her committee report that just came out yesterday. A council staffer tells LL the mayor’s office was scrambling today to send Thomas, Wells, and Brown into the hearing to kill Cheh’s proposal.

“This was a surprise attack,” says police union boss Kris Baumann. (By the way, Baummann says freezing pay STEP increases for his members would kill the police department’s recruitment and retention efforts, and he comes hard at Cheh with this gem: “It is unfortunate that the councilmember from the safest ward in the city is completely indifferent to the public safety of the residents in the rest of the city.”)

Citywide pay freezes seem like a pretty major policy decision to put on page 105 of a committee report, but Cheh says she’s not trying to surprise anybody.

“The only person who got a surprise is me,” Cheh tells LL. Cheh begins to elaborate before quickly hitting the brakes: “I’m not going to get into this with you.”

Cheh says the council in its it initial stages of discussing the budget, and her committee report “puts in on the table for discussion.” She plans on bringing up the proposal again when the whole committee meets.

At the hearing, Cheh said the argument that her proposal was unconstitutional was bunk (she noted that she was, after all, a constitutional law professor). She also essentially said “so what” to Wells’ complaint that she was using the money saved from freezing government employees’ pay to undo a proposed income tax increase for the wealthy. She said the District’s financial overall financial health is hurt by its reputation as a high-tax city, and raising taxes on a few is bad for everyone.

“The less fortunate will do better if the city does better and small businesses do better,” Cheh said. In other words: Trickle down, Tommy!

Photo by Darrow Montgomery