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Baker's plans for Prince George's could boost schools, lure new businesses

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:49 PM

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is expected to unveil a $2.7 billion county spending plan Monday that will offer modest increases for schools, police and firefighting and a $50 million program to stimulate economic development.

In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters Thursday, Baker (D) said he would offset spending increases and reduce the county's $77 million budget deficit for fiscal 2012 by forcing across-the-board cuts for most agencies and continuing a wage freeze for the county's 6,000 employees.

Baker, who said his administration already had begun talks with the public employee unions, declined to provide additional details. However, he said he would pay for new recruiting classes for the police and fire departments.

The additional schools funding would not dent the $21 million gap the school system is facing since Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) released his budget last month.

Instead, Baker will propose spending one-time funds from a $116 million current budget surplus to help schools pay for teacher training, evaluation and national certification and to encourage buyouts for educators who are perceived to be a drag on the system.

"We need to send a signal to the wider community that we are serious about education," he said.

Baker has also worked on shedding the county's reputation as a place businesses tended to overlook, in part because of a "pay to play" reputation.

Baker took the reins of county government Dec. 6, a few weeks after his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and Johnson's wife, Leslie, who is a County Council member, were arrested on federal corruption charges. The continued fallout from the arrests, Baker said, have complicated his efforts to promote the county as a good place to do business.

"I am spending a lot of time saying, 'It is different in Prince George's,' " he said. "It is taking far more effort than I thought it would."

He also has been busy lobbying for ethics legislation at the General Assembly and the County Council, and he said he is optimistic a compromise measure soon will be approved in Annapolis. It would impose some restrictions on campaign contributions and set a firm timetable for the council to review development projects, two issues critics have said must be addressed before the county can improve its reputation.

Baker said he will outline a series of financial incentives to attract development to the county, particularly to its Metro stations, which have not yielded the boom that transit-oriented development was expected to produce throughout the Metro system. He said he would focus on stations at Branch Avenue, Largo, Naylor Road and New Carrollton.

In a significant gesture to the business community, Baker is expected, as part of his budget plan, to propose revamping the county's myriad economic development agencies and centralize the permitting system to improve what many have said is a process that is complex, unwieldy and prone to delay.

The moves will be scrutinized by the council and could cause concerns among some community groups.

Baker said some of his proposed cutbacks in county spending could reduce social services, which have provided a safety net for many of the recession-battered county's 900,000 residents. Baker has said previously that he hopes to soften the blow by working more closely with religious institutions to maintain needed services.

Some critics, including former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who headed Baker's transition team, have said Baker has been too focused on ethics legislation. But Baker said it has been time well spent.

"I don't know how you can come before the business community and say you are different just by election," he said.

"You have got to be sure to show them that we are paying attention."

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