Prince George's park and planning commissioners were warned last week the county may face budget crises that could force drastic scaling down of park and recreation center operations, and a 10 percent staff cutback.
These conclusions were contained in a Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) study that found the cuts will be necessary unless the Prince George's half of the bicounty body can get more money in the next five years than it now expects to have.
"Unless we ask for a property tax increase or find new sources of revenue, we're going to wind up deeper and deeper in the hole," Doug Sherwood, M-NCPPC park and planning budget director, told the county commissioners last week.
Sherwood said that expenditures are increasing by 8 to 16 percent a year, while revenues are growing only by 4 percent.
Sherwood said the planning commission has been hurt more than other agencies by TRIM, the county's propery tax limiting charter amendment, because 90 percent of the commission's funds come from property taxes. Most other county government departments get 40 percent of their revenues from property taxes.
He said the commission could double or triple its service charges at facilities such as golf courses but public use of them might then drop sharply. f
Sherwood said that even with the increased service charges, inflation still might force the Prince George's planning board to cut programs and personnel
Without the service charge increases, at least 71 jobs would have to be eliminated as well as many programs, he said. In terms of those who would lose jobs, that number is much higher because the commission is staffed by a great many part-time, seasonal employes.
The effect of heavy dependence on the property tax was seen this year. Faced with rising inflation and only a modest increase in property tax revenues, the county planning board slashed 127 man years and a half million dollars from its fiscal 1981 budget.
Among the cuts were funds for the Prince George's executive director's office, operation of 10 playground sites and programs for poor and emotionally disturbed youths. Moreover, community activity centers were cut back from a seven- to a five-day-a-week operating schedule.
Officials say the budget slashes not only have hurt program and eliminated numerous jobs, but have severely damaged employe morale.
"We're reaching a point where people who work here can't look to the future with any confidence," said planning commision chairman John Burcham. "They've seen their colleagues' jobs taken, and they don't know when they'll be next.In a situation like this, you can't help but have bad employe morale."
Ruth Roberts, former deputy executive director of the bicounty commission and executive director of the Prince George's side of the agency, was a victim of the new austerity. Her job, the top professional position on the Prince George's side of the commission, was eliminated from the 1981 budget. Last Thursday was her last day at work.
Roberts, a resident of College Park, went to work this week for the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission.
"It's awfully hard to attract quality professional people when they constantly have to wonder whether or not their programs and their jobs are going to be in the next budget," said Roberts. "You know, this commission (the M-NCPPC) has a national reputation -- state of the art status. That's because of the quality of the staff and special resources like the library. If the budget problems continue, that reputation will undoubtedly suffer."
Actions taken by the Prince George's Park and Planning Commission stand in stark contrast to those in Montgomery County, While Prince George's was cutting its budget by 3 percent, Montgomery was increasing its expenditure level by nearly 8 percent.
These differences have begun to strain relations between the two counties.
When the seven M-NCPPC commissioners sat down last December to draft a budget for fiscal 1981, the tension and conflict that often pervades such bicounty meetings ran higher than usual.
It took the commissioners three meetings instead of the normal one to come up with a budget that each would be willing to take to the two county councils. While the Montgomery commissioners wanted to keep the budget at least within a few steps of the inflation rate, Prince George's representatives, pressed by TRIM, wanted to cut programs.
By the time the heated sessions were over, Prince George's had eliminated its share of funding for the bicounty library in Silver Spring, cut 17 people from the bicounty administrative staff, laid the groundwork for eventual elimination of the bicounty data processing center, and a shrewd bargaining persuaded Montgomery to give employes a 5 percent cost-of-living wage increase instead of 8 percent.
Many believe the consequences may extend far into the future. Officials in the bicounty agency now say the cuts have strained relations between Prince George's and Montgomery and perhaps have set the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission on a course of gradual dissolution of the coalition forged in 1927.
"There is no question the cuts strain relations between the two counties," said Montgomery County Planning Commission Chairman Royce Hanson. "If Prince George's financial difficulties destroy the central administration's financial core, there's no question our operation in Montgomery will be a lot less efficient.
The trend started last year when the Prince George's County Council passed a budget resolution recommending that bicounty services such as administration, legal representation and financial management now performed in the bicounty office in Silver Spring be turned over to the Prince George's Park and Planning Commission or the county government.
This year's elimination of financial support for the bicounty library has caused problems, Under the proposed arrangement, Montgomery alone would pay for the operation of the nationally known library, which houses an extensive collection of planning documents and research material. Prince George's staffers in Silver Spring would be able to use the library for a limited number of years to be determined by the financial worth of the county's past contributions to the collection.
"The problem is how do you put a price tag on this king of information," said Ruth Roberts.
Hanson said he does not expect a reverse in the trend next year.
"When we made cuts last year, a lot of commissioners thought we had gone below the level anyone could be comfortable with," he said. "Next year TRIM will draw real blood. As for the bicounty commission, people have been talking about dividing it ever since 1939.
"I don't like to speculate on this kind of thing, but if the commission dies, it would be a very slow death. Things don't look very good right now, but I don't think that death is imminent."