Pr. George’s adopts $3.4 billion budget for 2015; more funds for schools, police added

The Prince George’s County Council on Tuesday adopted a $3.43 billion spending plan for 2015 that nearly mirrors that proposed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III months earlier — but provides more money for schools, public safety and economic development.

The budget, which requires Baker’s signature, represents a spending increase from fiscal 2014 of more than 5 percent, despite modest gains in tax revenue, blamed on a weak labor market and still-recovering housing industry.

The bulk of the budget will go to the school system, which will receive 6.4 percent more to expand successful programs, reduce class sizes and restore parent liaison positions that had been cut.

The county shifted some funding proposed by Baker (D) to finance an extra $11 million in community college programs, sidewalk construction and an ongoing summer jobs initiative for youths.

All areas of public safety will see fatter budgets to recruit and hire more officers and firefighters, an effort to sustain Baker’s anti-crime initiatives across the county.

County Council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), who chairs the Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee, said the budget focuses on allocating resources to areas of the county that will be most affected by ongoing economic development, including Fort Washington, Oxon Hill and Temple Hills.

Accounting for the extra hours worked by police is a challenge for Prince George’s, where residents have asked for a ubiquitous law enforcement presence in their communities. Overtime costs for public safety helped push expenses over budget in 2014.

“I’ll pay the overtime if that means our streets are safer,” said community organizer Elsie Jacobs, of the Suitland Crime Action Team. “The criminals are getting the message when they see an officer in the community at all hours.”

The unanimous vote for the 2015 budget did nothing to solve the $62.5 million deficit that the county government faces this fiscal year. But Thomas Himler, deputy chief administrative officer for budget, finance and administration, said that next year’s budget gives government officials more tools to move money around if any unexpected costs arise.

Budget officials also will monitor overtime for officers and firefighters monthly instead of quarterly, as was done in 2014.

“We will also exercise more a watchful eye over our public safety overtime spending," said Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro).

He also said that “funding for our new police and fire classes will be based on adhering to the Fiscal Year 2015 overtime budget.”

The Baker administration and the council are working to finalize a plan that will close the 2014 gap without compromising the county’s solvency, budget officials said. Part of the plan includes using up to $42 million in reserve funds.

Council members said that furloughs would not be a part of any deficit-repair plans.

In the 2015 budget, money will also go to fulfill one of Baker’s campaign promises: Cleaning up government by fully staffing the Office of Ethics and Accountability with four full-time positions and one part-timer.

Prince George’s Community College will get about $4 million more than originally proposed to increase capacity for dual-enrollment programs and fund job-training programs in health care and hospitality, two areas where the county economy is expanding.

“We need to prepare our residents for the economy” and create a pipeline into new jobs, Franklin said.

Arelis Hernández covers Prince George’s County as part of The Washington Post's local staff.
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