When Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan handed his proposed budget to the County Council last March, he declared that he had given priority to funds for "public safety," which he called "the number one concern of Prince George's citizens."
Last week, when the council approved the 1982-83 county budget, Hogan won sweeping approval for his priorities--and major cuts were made in education rather than in public safety.
As a result, departments in the criminal justice area will receive an 18 percent increase, most of it going to the Department of Corrections. Departments in the public safety area will receive a 12 percent increase, most of it going to the police.
Despite the budgetary gains, both county and union officials were left unsatisfied. The police and fire chiefs said the county still has a long way to go before it meets their true needs. Union officials were highly critical, calling the increases insignificant and saying they saw no evidence that public safety was given a high enough priority.
The biggest budgetary winner, in the long run, will be the Department of Corrections, which runs the county Detention Center in Upper Marlboro. Spurred by a consent decreethat settled a class action suit by inmates on overcrowding, the county is committed to hiring more guards and building a new jail. Planning funds for the building are included in the budget.
The present Upper Marlboro jail has 143 single cells. Double celling, now permitted in Maryland, would provide room for 286 prisoners. Last week, the detention center held 475 prisoners, however.
Although it will be at least three or four years before the last steel bar is bolted in place, work will begin soon on a 592-bed prison, which eventually will cost the county between $35 million and $40 million.
Prison Program Director Jim O'Neill said the department will be ready by July 1 to begin hiring the 35 new guards provided by the budget. The guards will be spread through the jail, O'Neill said, adding to the 116 guards already there.
For prisoners, the added guards will mean outside recreation once a week rather than once a month, according to O'Neill. And the time prisoners spend waiting to be taken from cells to see visitors will be shortened.
"This would fulfill our critical manpower needs," O'Neill said. "Prior to this, we had to use overtime for security shakedowns and things like that." He said the new guards will "definitely improve morale: We've had too few people to get the job done. It's been a tribute to the line staff that we haven't had a disturbance."
The prison also will receive money to hire a physician's assistant to add to the six it already has, and its first nurse. The prison doctor's hours, currently 24 a week, will be lengthened to 35. These increases were part of the consent decree signed by the county.
The Police Department, meanwhile, will receive money for 50 new officers, which is all it can handle at a time, according to Chief John E. McHale Jr.. That number is far too few, according to Mal Curran, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
According to McHale, the officers will be spread out across the county, "freeing up a couple of guys for armed robbery, for the stakeout team, and a couple more for walking patrols."
With an attrition rate of about 30 officers a year, McHale hopes to recruit and train 85 new officers by next summer. A class of about 45 recruits will begin a 22-week training course in November, he said, and another class should start in June. "It takes you months to find the recruits," he said, "and months to train them."
McHale said the police force eventually is expected to number between 1,200 and 1,300 officers. But the department can train only 85 officers a year, he added, and so he plans no more than 50 additional places each year. At that rate, his goal would be reached by 1990.
But FOP President Curran said that is not enough. He disputed McHale's claim that the force can recruit and train only about 50 new officers a year. Between 1968 and 1970, he said, the force took on between 150 and 200 people a year. "They can easily train more," he argued.
But last week Curran was angry at the school system, not the police chief. He said that, even with the cuts in school funding, the education system received more than its share from the county coffers. "Education has been a sacred cow," he complained. "Politicians have been afraid to touch it."
The result is that its voice is heard too clearly on the County Council and its situation is made to seem more desperate than it really is, he said. "I don't think it's as bad as (council member) Ann Lombardi says," Curran said. "Half of all salaries are paid to people who are not in the classrooms."
He said the school system, with a network of parents, teachers, students, PTA organizations, and an elected school board that is part of the county's political system, "has more than its share of political clout."
"I don't particularly want the County Council to cut education," Curran said. But he said police would have received even more money, and the school system even less, if the public had a say in dividing county funds. "I think the county responsibility is to what the people want, and they are shouting loud and clear that they want police patrols stepped up, and more officers," he said. "The fact that 5 percent of the total county budget--5 percent of all they are spending--is on law and order. That, to me, is absolutely ludicrous."
According to the FOP, the county has 1.2 police officers per 1,000 residents, compared to the national average of 1.7, or 2.2 for an urban area.
Ron Milor, head of the Prince George's Professional Firefighters' union, also was disappointed with the budget. Although 25 firefighters will be added to the current contingent of 476 professionals and 1,000 active volunteers, "We need a lot more firefighters than 25," he said. "Twenty-five is way below our needs." Montgomery County has 709 professional firefighters.
The county still hasn't given public safety the priority it deserves, Milor said. "We don't like to see anybody hurt," when county money is divided, he said. "But we're in terrible shape. I don't know what to do except keep explaining that we get more than 70,000 calls a year."
According to both Milor and County Fire Chief Marion (Jim) Estepp, more than 10 percent of all fire calls are answered by undermanned units or not answered at all. And while the National Fire Protection Association recommends a standard of six firefighters on each responding unit, Milor said, the county standard is three firefighters.
At Oxon Hill station, one of the county's busiest, there are usually only three men on duty. This means that when the ambulance is called, requiring two men, only one is left to answer a fire call. And every fourth day there are only two men on duty at the station.
A 1979 county task force recommended the fire department have 1,470 career firemen and 3,000 volunteers. Although Estepp said these are the "ideal" numbers, "it's not realistic to expect them." He said he is "pleased that (the county executive and council) saw fire safety as one of their top priorities."
He said he already has a list of about 500 people interested in becoming Prince George's firefighters, "and we hope to gear up sometime in July to start hiring."
Milor complained that the county is getting money for the new firefighters by cutting down on overtime. "I don't think that's the right way to do it," he said. "You're still undermanning. Overtime is not the issue." Estepp disagreed, saying that even with cutbacks in overtime, "It's going to mean more numbers of people available."
The latest budget also allows for hiring 11 civilian emergency medical technicians for the fire department. Estepp said they will work out of the county's busiest ambulance station at Chapel Oaks. He said the new emergency workers could handle 50 to 60 percent of ambulance calls from that station, freeing firefighters for fire and other emergency calls.