The Prince George's County Council approved a $23 million Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission budget this week - and an accompanying three-cent park tax rate increase to fund it.
The increased park tax, which is levied on real property, also will enable the council to maintain last year's level of spending while spreading a few election year benefits to communities eager for more parks and recreation programs.
In response to constituents' demands, pleas and requests for parks in their areas, made at public hearings held last week, the council funded summer programs and park construction in several areas and approved more than $2 million toward the acquisition of land for future parks in other areas.
The tax increase will help to refund revenues lost through the state-mandated assessment rollbacks on real property and will provide funds for maintenance and park projects severely curbed last year when the council cut the tax rate five cents. The increased park tax will be 40 cents per $100 of assessed value. But with the assessment rollback, the tax on an average $50,000 house will be $2.50 less than last year.
In an election year, the MNCPPC budget offers residents a visible symbol (swimming pools, softball fields, tennis courts and the like) that the council is "doing" something for the community - indirectly because some of the money the council can dole out for parks comes not only from county revenues, but also from bond sales, state and federal grant money and community development funds.
This year the council added funds for new tennis courts, lighting for other existing tennis courts, the Bowie State free swim program and school ballfield maintenance.
Much of the money came from reducing budgeted cost-of-living funds and by eliminating a few proposed clerical and technical positions and by cutting out money for the tuition assistance program.
Responding to several suggestions made by residents at public hearings last week, the council also put money into programs for the arts and for expansion of a much-used summer playground program.
But it was in the development and construction of new parks where the council really fulfilled requests made by the public. Money for the acquisition of land for parks in Capitol Heights, Cedar Heights, Glassmanor, Mellwood, Landover, Anacostia and Bladensburg was appropriated and work on existing parks was budgeted for 30 other areas.
Just about every council member got a park in his or her district, but in a last ditch effort on Tuesday, Council Member Frank P. Casula, who represents Laurel, Beltsville and College Park, said he wanted a park in College Park Woods added to the budget.
"Everyone else has had their share of the goodies taken care of," Casula said. "I want some too now." Casula said he had been absent for a work session last week in which the council decided specific park projects to fund.
Casula's motion, however, simply opened up the way for several other council members to add more pet projects of their own.
While one council member shook his head over what he called "a new grab bag" of programs and wondered how to fund them, the council tabled the motion for new proposals and eventually passed - unanimously - the Park and Planning Budget.
Several projects with strong citizens support that the council approved in the budget include:
$101,000 for the Prince George's Publick Playhouse, which several persons praised as "elevating the cultural consciousness in Prince George's." Funds will be used for lighting, air conditioning, backstage bathroom facilities and roof insulation.
$100,000 for a community shelter for Green Meadows in Hyattsville, which the local citizens association promised the council "we will do our part to see that it is taken care of properly."
$84,000 to restore the summer playground program, reduced from seven to six weeks last summer because of budget cuts.
$30,000 to complete the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center. Residents told the council. "In our realistically jock-oriented society, the arts center will provide a well-rounded environment for our children."
$28,000 for the operation of five above-ground swimming pools in Chillum, Lakeland, North Brentwood, Colmar Manor and East Riverdale.