Pr. George's Approves 11% Rise In Spending

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Prince George's County Council adopted a $2.63 billion spending plan yesterday without taking action on a proposal to increase telephone taxes, as jurisdictions throughout Maryland moved toward completing budgets for next year.

Also yesterday, the Howard County Council approved an $812 million budget. The Montgomery County Council is expected to approve a $4.1 billion budget today.

In Prince George's, council members said county law requires them to vote on tax increases separately from their budget. Even so, they included the $17 million expected to be raised by the telephone tax increase proposed by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). They could vote on the tax proposal in June. If the council does not approve the tax, the county could use money from surplus funds or some other source to fill the gap.

Johnson proposed increasing the tax on land lines and mobile phones from 8 to 11 percent to help fully fund the school system's budget request. National telephone companies complained that the increase would make the Prince George's phone taxes among the highest in the nation. Some residents have also insisted that the proposal be put to a referendum, because the county charter requires that all tax increases get voter approval. Johnson contends that the telephone tax is an exception because it was imposed by the state.

In a letter submitted to the council yesterday, Johnson again urged approval of the tax increase, saying it would provide "a reliable source of ongoing revenue" for schools.

In all, the budget for the year beginning July 1 represents an 11 percent increase in spending over the current year and includes $1.66 billion for the county school system. It provides a 15 percent increase in spending for police and 14 percent more for the county fire department.

The council boosted spending for the county's community college by $7 million, which council members said would help defray tuition for an increasing number of residents who attend the school.

"We believe this was necessary to provide our students with another venue through which they can pursue higher education," said council member David Harrington (D-Cheverly).

The budget also includes $250,000 for consultants to examine the future of county health care and $12 million for Dimensions Healthcare System, the troubled nonprofit group that runs the county's hospital system. The council and Johnson agreed last month to provide funding to keep the system running through June 2008.

In Howard County, a council member's repeated attacks yesterday failed to derail plans by County Executive Ken Ulman (D) to help Howard Community College purchase and renovate an 18th-century estate in Elkridge.

The push by Courtney Watson (D-Northeast County) to curtail spending for the college was one of several efforts to trim Ulman's first budget as county executive. On a split vote, the council reduced Ulman's proposed 28 percent increase in the fire tax for Howard's western residents.

Instead, the fire tax will increase about 10 percent for residents in the western area. The tax will rise about 8 percent for those who live in the more densely developed eastern portion of the county. The tax increase will help launch a rural fire protection program and support more firefighters.

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