How do you define a priority? The answer -- if the issue is bond money and the locale is Prince George's County -- is, as many ways as there are politicians.
Just what constitutes a priority is a matter of some talk these days in Annapolis, where Gov. Harry Hughes has laid claim to all but about $10 million of the $220 million the state has to spend on bonds for capital improvements. Those are the brick and mortar projects that are the stuff of reelection campaigns.
With that kind of constraint, some heady interjurisdictional battles were expected anyway. But Prince George's officials, never a group to fight the distant enemy when one of their own will do, are already staging an intramural squabble over which -- or more to the point, whose -- bond projects will receive most-favored status with their powerful delegation.
It all started a few months ago with Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, who felt that No. 1 on everyone's state funding wish list should be $2 million to start work on the proposed Government Service Center in Hyattsville.
That project, estimated to cost $37 million (split evenly between the state and county), would consolidate a police station and traffic and juvenile courts in a convenient location, as well as spur redevelopment efforts in a rundown commercial area, Glendening said. Last year the county's legislators and local leaders supported a bond bill for the project along with many others, but the measure died in the final days of the session.
This year Glendening decided to focus on the Hyattsville center, on the theory that pushing one big-ticket item -- preferably of his choosing -- would bring more money back to the county than a mass of smaller projects.
The county executive worked up charts and briefing books, and he treated state lawmakers to breakfasts and dinners where they were acquainted with the benefits of the proposal. He appeared before the full delegation a few weeks ago, asking not only for sponsors but also a declaration that the bond bill for the center would be the county's top priority.
"In the past we have had a tendency to pick this one little project here and this little project there, which is fine if they're funded and in your district," Glendening said. But, he added, "we've got to start a focus on the larger projects that will have a dramatic and visual and positive effect in terms of service delivery" to the whole county.
Trouble soon flared at home, however. The County Council complained that it had not been consulted on the decision to focus on the Hyattsville proposal, and it questioned whether the action would dilute support for members' pet projects.
Council member James Herl, for example, asked the council to send a letter specifically endorsing a $250,000 bond bill to pay for a new park in his district. The council agreed, except for Floyd Wilson, who said singling out one member's bill was not a good idea.
"I don't know how you do business, Mr. Wilson," retorted Herl, "but I'm just pushing the project in my district."
Trouble flared in Annapolis. Though dozens of delegates climbed aboard the Hyattsville bill, the companion Senate bill found sponsors in only two senators, neither of them on the Budget and Taxation Committee or the Prince George's Senate delegation chief, Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"Parris has never to this day, to this minute, to this hour, talked to me about that Hyattsville" project, said Miller, a frequent Glendening antagonist. Glendening said the senators canceled a briefing at the last minute, although, Glendening said, Miller assured him it was not meant as a snub.
Meanwhile, directors of the Prince George's Community Hospital and Health Care Systems Inc., a nonprofit corporation that runs the county-owned hospitals, went before the county's state senators and then delegates asking for a $3 million bond bill to improve some of their facilities. Glendening and the council fired off a letter to the legislators opposing that bond bill, saying the hospital directors had not consulted the county officials.
Last week the council voted to support all the projects submitted by county legislators -- except for the hospital's. The projects included a recreation center in Chillum and renovation of the Bladensburg Peace Cross and Oxon Hill Manor. To reinforce the point, council Chairman William Amonett called Annapolis last Friday to spread the word to Miller and Del. Charles J. Ryan, chairman of the Prince George's House delegation.
"I don't think we would make anything a priority," said Amonett, "I think we support all the projects. . . .I said to Glendening , 'I'm sure you understand that if we don't support their legislators' pet projects, you can kiss the Hyattsville Justice Center goodbye.' "
Amonett said he called to make sure the message was "straight."
Where do things stand? Said Ryan: "The county's No. 1 priority is the Hyattsville Justice Center, they've made that clear."
Said Miller: "I don't know that the county has a list of priorities in terms of bond projects."
Glendening: "My recollection was and the subsequent discussion was they agreed the Hyattsville plan was the top priority."
"I think," said Del. Gary Alexander, "we kind of got mixed signals."