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

By Miranda S. Spivack
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.

"And it would be awesome to have it come to my district," he said, chuckling as his council colleagues guffawed, because many of them want the same thing. Prince George's has about 5 percent of federal office space; about 40 percent is in the District, and the rest is spread around the region, so the county can make a case that it should be the next place to tap, council members said.

New member Leslie E. Johnson (D-Mitchellville) also wants the HHS facility or another big federal agency in her district. "Many factors make Largo the best place for that [federal] tenant," she said. Johnson was sworn in Dec. 6 with the other eight council members despite the concerns of several colleagues that she should not take office because she is facing federal charges of evidence tampering and destruction of evidence.

Another priority for the council is the public school system, which needs updated facilities and is trying to improve academics. At least five members said high schools in their districts require renovations, citing Bowie, Central, High Point, Fairmont Heights and Oxon Hill high schools. There is also a potential need for a new high school in the northern part of the county, depending on the growth of the 127,000-student system. But a new high school would bring a $100 million price tag - a daunting amount even in a good economy.

"Those children should not have to go to school in those conditions," said council member Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), who is pushing to rebuild Fairmont Heights, where equipment is old, classrooms are shabby and hallways are grim.

Council members also will take up the details of a new storm water management policy for the county. They must strike a balance between development and environmental concerns, issues that tangled up the previous council in its final session in October.

Many developers fear the council will develop harsh, burdensome regulations; environmental groups say limiting runoff ultimately will pay for itself and keep drinking water clean.

By the end of the three-day retreat, council members had been briefed on subjects ranging from how to communicate with media and the public (with help from crisis advisers Judy Smith and Craig Garrett, who count National Football League quarterback Michael Vick among their clients) and how to avoid ex parte communications with parties to a case before them, to figuring out how the county spends its money.

Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) estimated that the retreat cost about $15,000; details won't be known until the bills come in. Some community activists questioned the council's decision to travel to the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge to conduct business.

Judy Robinson of Hyattsville said she was seeking more information and meeting minutes, noting it was difficult for the public to attend the sessions.

"I thought it was politically stupid," she said, suggesting that the council could have met somewhere in the county, giving the public easier access.

Turner said the meetings were open to the public, and it was helpful to leave the county to enable council members to be free from distractions.

"We had to deal with building a foundation that will last for four years," Turner said.

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