Obtaining funding for school construction, infrastructure improvements and a new hospital will be top priorities this year and during the upcoming General Assembly session, said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
Improving schools goes hand-in-hand with fostering economic development, Baker (D) said.
“I think there’s a tremendous opportunity . . . to help not only Prince George’s County, but also help the state, because the growth in the state is going to happen in the Washington region,” Baker said.
Some of the major projects for which the county is seeking funding include new high schools in Oxon Hill and Fairmount Heights and an elementary school in Hyattsville. In November, the county sent a letter to the state requesting $20.6 million for new or replacement schools and additions to existing schools; $24.5 million for renovations such as new windows, roofs or ventilation systems; and about $12 million in reimbursement for previous construction projects.
Last year, the county requested $56 million and received $40 million, including $9 million that came from an increase in the state alcohol tax.
Baker said he would again support an increase in the state gas tax to generate revenue for road and infrastructure improvements. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has said he supports a 15-cent-per-gallon increase in the tax, which is now 23.5 cents per gallon. Money from the gas tax goes primarily to state transportation projects, but a portion also goes to local jurisdictions.
“You can’t do economic development without the ability to build the roads and the infrastructure around it,” Baker said. “[The tax] is the only revenue source I see that can help us out.”
Finding money to pay for a proposed regional hospital in the county — estimated to cost about $600 million in state and county funds — also is a major goal, Baker said. The expense has sparked a renewed discussion about bringing slot machines to the county.
The aging hospital system has been losing money since the 1990s and has received regular government bailouts of $15 million a year from the county and the state since 2008.
Baker has said that slots should be considered as a possible source of funding for the proposed hospital. (In an agreement signed last year, the University of Maryland Medical System partnering with Dimensions Healthcare, which runs county hospitals, would overhaul the county’s struggling medical system.)
“I don’t think that’s the right way to handle this,” said County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), a slots opponent who co-sponsored a bill last year that would have banned the gambling machines in Prince George’s. “I believe it warrants more discussion.”
Harrison said the Prince George’s County Council and Baker had “a strong interest in a healthy county” and would be working together to improve the county’s medical system.
Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), chairwoman of the county’s House delegation to the General Assembly, also has been critical of slots. She said she hoped “to find other creative solutions to [the county’s] fiscal challenges that don’t bring with them the social ills associated with gaming.”
Griffith said the legislative priorities of the Prince George’s delegation have changed little during the past few years and again would include lobbying for more money for education and health care.
“Improving access to health care is a big priority,” she said.
In the fiscal 2012 budget approved last year, the county received $4 million in capital funds from the state for improvements to the existing hospital system and, Griffith said, she hoped to work with Baker and Harrison to “continue the momentum.”
The money probably will go to pay for new hospital beds and building repairs, Baker’s spokesman Scott Peterson said.
A proposed fee for the use of disposable bags in retail stores, similar to existing fees in the District and Montgomery County, also is expected to generate rigorous discussion among the county’s representatives in Annapolis, Griffith said, adding that public testimony and correspondence on the issue was split evenly.
Baker also said he planned to meet with council leadership this month to discuss implementing task force recommendations for increasing accountability in county government. The task force submitted its final report in June and recommendations included creating an inspector general position and strengthening the county’s board of ethics with a dedicated staff member and subpoena power.