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Rushern Baker seeks Prince George's development fund for economic boost

By Miranda S. Spivack
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; B03

Hemmed in by a property-tax cap, a strapped state government and his county's economic woes, Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III on Monday proposed a $50 million economic development fund he hopes will be the game changer to help the struggling Washington suburb attract jobs and new revenue.

The fund, which Baker wants to finance from a one-time $116 million surplus, is a major element of the $2.63 billion spending plan he formally released Monday.

"We are making a big investment," Baker (D) told the County Council. "We ramped it up. I don't think anyone else in the region will be able to match us on that." The plan includes loans, grants and tax incentives, as well as an effort to simplify the county's complex permitting process.

The fund would dwarf those of most other area jurisdictions. By comparison, Montgomery County budgets slightly less than $1 million for its fund.

The proposed budget, Baker's first, must be approved by the council before July 1. It includes increases for public schools and public-safety agencies - areas Baker has insisted must improve if the county is to attract and retain businesses.

"A high-performing school system is an essential partner to our economic success," he said at a news conference after his meeting with the council. And new businesses won't come to the county, he said, if they don't feel safe.

Baker proposed giving the public schools, which account for nearly 60 percent of all county spending, an additional $14 million in one-time funds from the surplus to use on teacher training and national certification and to create incentives for early retirement and buyouts.

Other details

Baker also allocated more funds for libraries, a new police station in southern Prince George's - where response time has lagged - a new homeless shelter, and more personnel for the police, fire, sheriff and state's attorney's offices. Funding for social services is essentially flat. Baker has said he hopes to enlist the large faith community in the county to help the government deliver services.

County employees, who have endured several years of freezes on hiring and pay, will see that continue. Baker said he has begun talks with labor unions, which represent the bulk of the county's nearly 6,000 employees. He expects to trim about 150 vacant county jobs.

One nonprofit group, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental education program in Accokeek, would get a one-time $3 million grant. That would allow it to attract $8 million in state and grant funds, Baker said.

Baker trimmed spending in nearly all departments, reduced the number of county cars for his administration and cut back on outside county contracts. His staff has begun a review of the county's $10 million in property leases for office space.

Boosting revenue

Proposals to bolster revenue include installing cameras to catch speeding drivers at several intersections, estimated to bring in $4.3 million, and extending the current rate for the recordation tax, which would add $29 million.

"Overall, the average citizen is not going to see anything different," said Tom Himler, Baker's budget chief.

Still, the challenge for Prince George's is daunting. Baker faces a $77 million deficit in the new fiscal year that could grow because property tax collections have diminished as housing values have plummeted.

The 127,000-student Prince George's public schools system, while improving some in recent years, still lags behind those in nearby Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

In its first few months, the Baker administration also has had to deal with the cloud of federal corruption charges looming against his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and Johnson's wife, Leslie (D), a member of the County Council; a string of homicides; and a $21 million reduction in state aid to county schools.

The final spending plan is up to the nine-member council, which over the next few months will hold a series of public hearings before voting in late May. Members appeared initially supportive.

"He has presented a good package," said County Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie). "It is a good starting point."

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