Maryland Suburbs Seek Aid
By Scott Wilson and Jackie Spinner
The leaders of Montgomery and Prince George's counties begin second terms tomorrow with different agendas but one common desire: a huge haul in state aid for schools, transportation and other projects.
Washington's two largest Maryland suburbs are prosperous, growing counties. But Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, both Democrats, say that impression masks the strain on public finances as they strive to reinvigorate older urban neighborhoods and serve booming subdivisions miles from the Capital Beltway.
In January, Duncan will ask the General Assembly for $200 million in new state construction aid, half to reduce traffic congestion caused in part by commuters traveling to jobs inside the county. The rest will go toward schools, parks and other public works as his county's population heads toward 1 million. Curry's agenda includes building 13 new schools in addition to the 13 funded last year, a more than $100 million request needed to restore aging campuses and build new ones to keep pace with growth.
Both Curry and Duncan are canny, ambitious politicians, but much of their second-term success depends on the continuing health of the economy. Even with budget surpluses, their aid requests likely will meet resistance from state politicians who believe the Washington suburbs get more than their share.
Their plans also could be complicated by internal county feuding. In Montgomery, Duncan faces a fractious County Council; Curry has said he wants to improve relations with the county's state lawmakers, some of whom he worked against in the last election.
Still, both men said their constituents are clamoring for renewed attention from government leaders.
"No matter where you go in the county, they tend to feel that they are the least looked after," Duncan said. "I will say that it is better than it was four years ago. [But] there are going to be times when I have to step up and the council has to step up and say this is for the good of the county."
Curry said Prince George's no longer faces the budget deficits that forced county leaders to cut services in the mid-1990s and now can devote resources to community development.
"We're fiscally stable, and all of those harsh things that had to be done to keep us healthy don't have to be done anymore," Curry said. "We'll be able to help people better, faster. Revitalization is going to be a big deal with me revitalizing communities and building relationships."
Throughout Washington's Maryland suburbs, politicians will be forced over the next four years to cope with the competing interests of older and newer neighborhoods. The debate will shape everything from education spending to road construction, and it will pit neighborhood against neighborhood..
In Howard and Anne Arundel counties, incoming Democratic county executives will be looking to keep taxes low while finding new money for school systems that have felt shortchanged in recent years. In Southern Maryland, county commissioners will be managing the pressures of growing populations.
Duncan and Curry's motives for seeking sizable increases in state aid already are being questioned by some who believe they are merely interested in bolstering their resumes. Duncan does not discourage speculation that he will run for governor in 2002, and Curry, who will be forced from office in four years by term limits, is plotting his next move.
Yet both counties expect to reap rewards for the strong support Montgomery and Prince George's voters gave Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in the November election.
Though their counties are financially stable, Duncan and Curry say they face daunting challenges as development stretches farther from aging close-in neighborhoods. Each county is experiencing transforming demographic change that prevents simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.
Immigrant communities are rejuvenating older Montgomery neighborhoods such as Silver Spring and Wheaton but presenting new challenges to county social workers, transportation planners and teachers. Recreation officials question whether to build more tennis courts in Wheaton when a growing Latino population favors soccer fields. Almost a quarter of Montgomery students qualify for free or reduced lunches more than five times the proportion two decades ago.
In Prince George's, county leaders are turning their attention to the awakening needs of a black middle class. They also face the historic challenge of returning thousands of students to neighborhood schools after years of forced busing.
The terms of a desegregation lawsuit settled this year will require an estimated 26 new county schools to accommodate the students and handle increasing enrollment. Half of those campuses have yet to be funded by the state and will become the Prince George's delegation's single biggest request in Annapolis this year.
"We are no longer encumbered by or shackled to that negative image of busing," Curry said. "And that will create a new horizon. That will involve more school construction, and we'll go back to the well on that."
Curry, who angered many in his party this year by endorsing Glendening's primary opponent, said that Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D), chairman of the Prince George's House delegation, will lead the fight for more school construction aid. Baker said he intends to remind Glendening that Prince George's voters supported him by a wide margin.
"We expect the governor to come through for us," Baker said. "We came out for him."
Montgomery, meanwhile, will be asking the state to help manage mounting traffic congestion that has accompanied the county's rise as a job center. Sixty percent of Montgomery residents work in the county, jamming commuter routes during rush hours as politicians search for consensus on where to build roads and mass transit routes.
For Duncan, Montgomery's first county executive to win a second term since 1982, the biggest challenge will be negotiating with civic groups and a historically independent council to try to reduce traffic. A state task force is reviewing the planned intercounty connector, a $1 billion highway joining Interstate 270 with Interstate 95 north of Prince George's. Duncan said he thinks the commission will recommend building a road to Glendening when it finishes work in June.
In the meantime, Duncan and the council are at odds over how to proceed. A council majority supports construction of a trolley line between Silver Spring and Bethesda, a project Duncan campaigned against in 1994 and continues to oppose.
"That's years away, if ever," Duncan said. "It needs to connect Fairfax County and Prince George's County. It's not going to meet any demands."
In addition to transportation, Duncan has pledged to reduce class sizes in the 128,000-student Montgomery school district and to work with neighboring counties to attract biotechnology firms. The county will ask for nearly $58 million in school construction aid, about $8 million more than the record amount it received this year.
Duncan also has hitched his political wagon to the successful completion of more than $500 million worth of public works and urban renewal projects, all of which could be dashed by an economic downturn.
His state aid request will include $5 million for the next stage of the Silver Spring redevelopment project which is intended to bring stores such as a Fresh Fields Whole Foods Market and a Borders bookstore to the older neighborhood and $33 million for a nearby transit center. But some council members and state lawmakers from Montgomery are looking for ways to derail a $60 million conference center along Rockville Pike, including withholding money.
"The biggest challenge facing us is creating a sense of community in a county on its way to 1 million people," said incoming council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "Everywhere you go people want the same thing: libraries and a downtown."
Across the county line, Prince George's officials want to step up their economic development efforts, as well as focus on efforts to revitalize communities hugging the Beltway. The county also must figure out how to finance the roads and other infrastructure needed to support recently announced projects, such as the National Harbor project near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and a $1 billion development at the Greenbelt Metro station.
Curry and Duncan each bristle at suggestions that their proposals are being influenced by their own personal ambitions. But Duncan acknowledges that speculation he might run for governor in 2002 could help his campaign to win more state aid.
"When you go to Annapolis, if people think you have even the smallest chance of becoming governor, they pay a lot more attention to what you are saying," he said. "Montgomery's case will be much more carefully heard."
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