The tension, palpable at their retreat on the Eastern Shore last year, was no longer evident.
Although the Prince George’s County Council’s annual working getaway, held this year in Baltimore, produced no specific proposals, the nine members appeared to have left behind last year’s embarrassing distraction of trying to govern with a colleague who had been charged with corruption.
This year, council members said, they plan to seek ways to shore up education, environmental programs, economic development and public safety, and complete an overhaul of ethics rules that began in last year’s state legislature.
It won’t be easy.
Many council members want to expand the county’s tax base to help close an estimated $126 million budget shortfall without further burdening county residents, who pay among the highest taxes in Maryland. At the same time, Prince George’s officials have to cope with challenges emanating from the state capital: potentially less overall state aid, possibly higher teacher pension costs for localities and an ongoing battle over an income tax formula that leaves Prince George’s at a disadvantage.
“We have to come up with some ways to help ourselves,” Council Chairman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) said as she assessed the county’s challenge after the retreat. “We can’t just be reliant on the state.”
Council members also must decide how to respond to the likelihood that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) will propose an increase in the gas tax; the effort to bring slot machines to Prince George’s; and the push to have slots revenue help pay for a much-needed regional hospital. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who attended the retreat, has said he would support the governor’s gas tax plan and the council’s efforts to seek state approval of a 5-cent bag tax. But Baker remains noncommittal about slot machines in the county.
The sentencing of former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, former council member Leslie Johnson (D), on corruption charges last month and the ongoing federal investigation continue to cast a shadow over the Prince George’s government. Among the county’s big priorities in Annapolis this year is funding for a proposed $600 million regional hospital for Prince George’s, which lacks top-quality medical facilities. At the same time, the current hospital’s chief executive, Ken Glover, faces questions about his relationship with Jack Johnson. Dimensions Healthcare System has launched an internal investigation.
The biggest single expense in the Prince George’s budget is the 125,000-student public school system, which draws more than half of its $1.6 billion spending from the state. With enrollment down slightly and the state government facing a $1 billion shortfall, state aid could be at risk, though O’Malley’s school construction plan could be a bright spot. Under the proposal, Prince George’s could receive about $52 million, nearly all it is seeking for renovation of its aging schools.
The council also must determine how the county is going to pay for and comply with stricter requirements for managing storm-water runoff, fix roads and expand public transit. And Baker has urged the council to help him find more money for the state’s attorney’s office so that it can hire more prosecutors.
Securing new businesses for the county is envisioned by Baker and the council as one way to expand the county’s treasury.
If last week’s retreat produced one clear message, it was that the county should put its energy into luring private companies even as it tries to land big federal installations.
Greg Jeffries, a top federal leasing official, said federal belt-tightening inevitably will have a trickle down effect in Prince George’s.
“This is a tough environment we are in now,” Jeffries told the council. “There is lots of consolidation, lots of downsizing.” He said it could be several years before federal agencies are allowed to move to new quarters, which could stall county efforts to snag the new headquarters for the FBI and possibly some part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Working out the fine details on the county’s budget will consume most of the council’s time in the next six months, but the council also is examining an ethics reform proposal, a legacy of the Johnson corruption cases.
Baker, who last year convened an ethics task force headed by former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), said he wants to strengthen the county’s ethics office, whose expansion is required by a new state law. He also would like to send more money to the state’s attorney’s office to create a public corruption unit. For now, he is not talking about setting up an inspector general’s office, which Schmoke’s panel recommended
Showing that the county is determined to try to fix its ethics challenges, Baker said, is key to improving Prince George’s economy.
Otherwise, he has said repeatedly, “businesses don’t want to come here.”