A few weeks ago, the Prince George's branch of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission went into the day-care business with hardly any discussion.
The vote that day reflects the independence that the five-member Prince George's commission has enjoyed in recent years. At the same time, it reflects the kind of catch-all agency the commission has become in Prince George's, doubling in size and cost over the past decade while other county agencies have had to cut back.
The commission's main function is supposed to be park preservation and planning for Prince George's. Indeed, the Prince George's County commission controls and maintains 16,000 acres of land, including 13,000 acres of parkland.
But with a 1983 budget of $30 million, it also operates four golf courses, two ice-skating rinks,, a playhouse and the Prince George's Equestrian Center. It also governs a marina and 19 historic sites amounting to some $9 million in real estate. It doles out $28,000 in grants to arts groups each year. It makes zoning decisions (which are then voted on by the County Council), may take land or condemn it, and has its own police force.
"Over the years programs have sort of been hung on the commission like ornaments on a Christmas tree without any particular rationale for where they were being put," says Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening.
Glendening is one of a growing number of county officials, including some commission members, who say the commission may have taken on too much.
Last week, Glendening said he wants a citizen task force to take an inventory of the programs the commission runs and the property it owns to see which should be kept and which could be turned over or leased to private concessions.
Prince George's five park commissioners meet alone to decide county issues and with the five-member Montgomery County park commission to decide bicounty issues. In Prince George's, the members are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council, which also approves the commission's budget. A post on the Prince George's commission is a coveted political patronage job. It pays an annual salary of $10,600, and the chairman, longtime county political power broker Charles Dukes Jr., receives $21,200.
No more than three of the five commissioners can be from the same political party at a given time. When former county executive Lawrence J. Hogan, a Republican, was in office, the commission was stacked with Republicans. Glendening recently replaced two Hogan appointees, one Republican and one Democrat, with two Democratic appointees of his own, so now it has a Democratic majority.
Glendening says the commission often forays on its own. In the case of the day-care project, he says, he wasn't even aware that that the commission was preparing to open three after-school programs at three county-owned buildings.
On other occasions, the County Council has forced programs on the commission that other agencies either didn't want or couldn't handle.
A prime example, Glendening says, was the case of the Harmony Hall arts and community center near Fort Washington.
That project arose this past spring after council member William Amonett decided during his reelection campaign that the southern end of the county, which he represents, needed a cultural center.
"It was one of those things where boom, somebody says let's put something in and all of a sudden money is allocated for it," Glendening recalls.
One of the reasons that park and planning is a good repository for new programs, such as Harmony Hall, is because, as a bicounty agency, it is not under the Prince George's property tax cap called TRIM.
Unlike other county agencies that are funded through the property tax, the commission's funding comes from a separate park tax that this year cost county residents 43 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value.
The park tax has been rising steadily in recent years and the commission's budget has increased between $1 million and $2 million each year for the past three years, largely in the broadly defined area of recreation.
The $300,000 that the County Council allocated for Harmony Hall came out of money that was already budgeted for maintenance of park and recreation facilities. Amonett says the money was justified, asking, "What does government exist for if not to serve the people?"
Several commission officials say they did not want the agency to take over several programs, such as Harmony Hall, but were forced to do so by the political powers in the county.
Such was also the case, they say, with the College Park Airport, the Bladensburg Marina and the Marlboro race track, now called the Prince George's County Equestrian Center.
These programs are part of the commission's Enterprise Fund. Programs in the fund are supposed to support themselves through the fees residents pay to use them.
But in fact, the marina lost about $30,000 last year and the airport lost $90,000, according to the commission's secretary-treasurer, A. Edward Navarre.
The Equestrian Center showed a profit of $16,700. However, the county paid $1.2 million to buy it in 1980 and this year, park and planning expects to lose $110,000 on the center because of improvements and renovations it has had to make to the property, according to a commission official.
The financial drain from such programs, as well as the constant addition of new programs, cuts into the amount of money spent on the overall maintenance of parks and recreation facilities, according to Hugh B. Robey, the Prince George's commission director of parks and recreation.
"Every year I plead and beg with the county government , 'Don't give me any more programs. Just give me enough funds to maintain the ones I have.' " Robey says.
Ann Shoch, who just finished a four-year term as a park and planning commissioner, said she is concerned that the commission and the county are "going too far" to cater to special interests and are in some cases competing with the private sector or subsidizing it.
"Some of the programs, such as golfing and racquetball, I can see because not everyone can afford to pay a private club," she says. "But you can also argue that other things, like the marina and the airport, are not necessities."
Richard Stevenson, a planning officer for the commission, says the agency decided to purchase the airport for $1 million after its owner decided it would be more profitable to sell it to make way for an industrial park.
Stevenson said that some citizens interested in aviation came to the commission and asked that the airport be preserved because of its historic significance as the oldest airport in continuous use in the world. Today nine park and planning employes run the airport.
The decision to buy College Park Airport has been criticized by the operators of privately owned airports in the county. "It's in direct competition with private industry," complains Tony Rodenhauser, who operates the Freeway Airport in Bowie.
"College Park gets all the money it needs for expansion. They recently changed the direction of the runway. They employ people to scrape the snow, mow the grass. All this is done at taxpayers' expense," Rodenhauser adds.
The marina in Bladensburg was once owned and operated by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which used it for flood-control purposes. Then, when the WSSC no longer wanted to operate it, the legislature transferred the marina to park and planning in 1976.
Today it is leased by the private firm Safford Marine, which pays about $13,000 to rent it each year, Stevenson said. But the commission pays between $20,000 and $40,000 annually to Safford Marine to dredge the channel near the marina.
"The marina is sort of a white elephant," Shoch said. No more than 20 boats are ever docked there at any given time, Stevenson said.
County Council chairman Frank P. Casula says the commission should not be running any programs that compete directly with private businesses. Yet, Casula and the rest of the council voted to fund the recent day-care venture.
That program began at the urging of state Dels. Pauline Menes and Timothy Maloney, who told the commissioners there are currently not enough private facilities to meet the needs of elementary schoolchildren before and after school.
A few weeks later, the County Council approved $25,000 for the program. The money came from a federal community development block grant. But in the future, county taxpayers may also pay for that program, if it continues.
Commission chairman Dukes, also president of the county Chamber of Commerce, says he knows of no programs the commission is currently running that would be better run by some other county agency or a private venture.
"From a purist's point of view, you could say the county shouldn't do anything that competes with private industry," he says. "But practically speaking, the government has been in competition with the private sector for years."