Prince George's Council hopes to reshape county but faces money woes

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; 10:16 PM

It was Day Two of the Prince George's County Council's retreat in Cambridge, Md., and members were ticking off their priorities.

Develop around Metro stations. Enhance public safety. Entice federal agencies to locate in the county. Make health care more accessible. Rebuild aging schools.

But when the all-Democratic council opens its 2011 session Tuesday in Upper Marlboro, economic reality will set in: The county's $2.7 billion budget has a gap of $77 million.

That means elected officials, despite campaign promises, might have to scale back expectations - their own and voters' - before the budget is approved in the spring.

"A little while from now . . . people are going to ask you, 'What have you been doing?' " said William A. Welch Sr., an assistant professor of human resources development at Bowie State University, one of several consultants who advised the council during the retreat. "You say, 'I am doing economic development.' What does that mean? You need to be specific . . . so that people can see it, feel it and touch it, and understand what you are doing. You have got to leave here and try to implement it. That is not going to be fun."

The next few years for the council, which has five new members, will be marked by significant hurdles, in part because the budget gap is likely to grow. Council members must figure out whether they can pay for more police and better schools; how to expand local health care; and how to attract new businesses to expand the tax base, which is limited by a voter-imposed property tax cap. There is also pressure to build more recreation centers, improve the local bus system, upgrade social services and ensure that new development is environmentally sound.

At the same time, council members said they want to deliver something tangible to their own districts (it helps at election time) but also govern for the good of the county as a whole.

It can be a Solomonic task, according to the council's chief administrator, Bobby Williams, a minister in his off-hours.

"How do you split the baby? How do you address competing demands?" he asked the nine-member council.

One of the priorities involves developing properties near Metro stations. Officials, including County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), have said such development would create walkable communities and attract jobs. Several council members said it would increase the odds that a federal agency with thousands of jobs, such as Homeland Security's headquarters or a branch of Health and Human Services, would wind up in their districts.

Council member Will Campos (D-Hyattsville) hopes to lure an outpost of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, currently near Rockville. Like many of his colleagues, he has been talking up the idea with federal, state and local officials. The issue has been under discussion for more than a year, and Montgomery County is working hard to keep the agency there.

"Having HHS come to the county would be amazing," he said, pointing to the potential for 5,000 government jobs as well as the benefits of spinoff companies that often follow federal agencies.


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