Correction:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that property tax collections in Prince George’s County had dropped to $90 million annually from a high of $240 million six years ago. Collections from property recordation taxes, not all property taxes, decreased. This version has been corrected.

Prince George’s boosts school spending, public safety in $2.7 billion budget

The Prince George’s County Council on Thursday unanimously adopted a $2.7 billion budget that boosts spending on schools and public safety while holding the line on almost everything else.

The spending plan, which takes effect July 1, includes modest tax increases in a county where property taxes are capped by a voter-approved referendum. It also includes bonuses for most of the county’s 6,000 employees, who have endured several years of pay freezes and furloughs.

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The 120,000-student public school system’s operating budget will increase 3.1 percent to $1.66 billion. School officials hope to use about $18 million to pay for raises for teachers and help the system compete with higher salaries in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. An additional $19 million will be used to begin to pay the costs of teacher pensions as they are shifted from the state.

The county’s $2 billion capital budget, also approved Thursday, includes $80 million in county funds for school construction and renovation. The state is kicking in an additional $40 million, which is about $15 million less than requested.

Most county employees will receive a $1,250 bonus, which follows a $1,000 bonus they are due to receive by June 30. The bonuses will cost the county about $14 million over two years, and possibly more, depending on the result of arbitration with the county’s police union.

Although county employees won’t get a raise, the previous council had voted to increase council members’ pay by $3,278, which brings their annual salaries to $99,695, among the highest in the region. (Council members Mel Franklin and Eric Olson turned back their raises; Mary A. Lehman donated hers to a local charity.)

The county’s park and planning agency, which is not subject to the property tax cap, will increase the taxes for residents of Aquasco, District Heights, Greenbelt, Nottingham and parts of Laurel by as much as $52 annually.

Spending for roads and public works is up to $22.2 million, an increase of about $11.3 million over current levels. That includes $5 million added at the last minute by the council to improve pedestrian safety. The county leads Maryland in pedestrian fatalities.

The budget also calls for an expansion of the county’s ethics office, adding two investigators and making the part-time executive director full time.

There is money for training for 150 new police officers and 70 new firefighters as well as funds for a 311 call center due to open in October. The county is pitching in for the state’s attorney’s office to hire five new prosecutors and seven additional support staff and paralegals. The budget also increases funding for summer youth programs and adds $1 million for the construction of an African American museum in North Brentwood.

Tom Himler, the county’s deputy administrator for budget, said the fiscal picture is likely to wor­sen in the next two years. County property recordation tax collections are down to $90 million annually, from a high of nearly $240 million six years ago, and property values have only recently begun to show signs they are stabilizing.

Still, he said, “We are happy with the outcome.”

County Council Chairman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) said that the negotiations with County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) “were smooth” and that the council persuaded Baker to reduce the amount of his proposed increase in the real estate recordation tax.

In a statement from his office, Baker said, “We made some tough decisions, but together we made investments in our schools and children, public safety, economic development and healthcare that will continue to make Prince George’s County a great place to live, invest, work and visit.”

Baker had proposed increasing the tax by 50 cents to $3 for every $500 of property value. The council raised the tax by 25 cents, meaning an increase of $80 on the typical real estate transaction.

Like many local governments, Prince George’s continues to have substantial fiscal challenges, exacerbated by the county’s high foreclosure rate. Baker’s hopes of raising revenue by allowing a casino at National Harbor has yet to gain political traction. And his $50­ million economic development incentive fund has not yet landed a major business deal.

In a series of accounting maneuvers, the Baker administration delayed some expenditures to save money.

The budget postpones new recruit classes for police and fire by a few months, one of several ways Baker tried to plug the $126 million shortfall he was faced with when the county started the budget process last winter.

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

 
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