With the state legislature back in session and the County Council scheduled to reconvene next week, the stage is set for the next round in the ongoing battle over Prince George's school construction and residential growth.
"Never has there been a bigger political football than the nexus of new development and school overcrowding," said council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). But this time, Shapiro is urging his fellow politicians to put the politics on hold. He said he hopes that politics will take a back seat to policy as the nine-member council -- with five new members and two others elected earlier last year -- confronts the issue.
"There is common ground here," he said. "We can get all our needs met, so long as we focus on policy and minimize the politics."
The need, all sides agree, is great. With Maryland facing a severe budget shortfall, the amount of state money for Prince George's new school construction has been slashed, from $35 million to $4 million. The reduction is especially tough in Prince George's, which only recently began to catch up after years of building no new schools, even as enrollment climbed to 135,000 students.
So the county must look for other funding. Because county residents have for years limited local revenues with TRIM, the voter-imposed property tax cap, officials are mainly looking at increased fees on new homes.
The council will not be acting in a vacuum. Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's) has already proposed a bill in the General Assembly to double the current county schools surcharge on home builders from $5,000 to $10,000 per unit. Joan B. Pitkin, a former delegate and now an Annapolis lobbyist for County Executive Jack B. Johnson, calls it "the bill of the year."
At the same time, the council will be taking another look at CB-40, the controversial local "pay-go" measure adopted in November 2001 that allows new homes to be built in neighborhoods where classrooms are crowded if builders pay a separate "adequate public facilities" fee of up to $4,950 per housing unit for new schools.
Another bill, introduced by council member Thomas R. Dernoga (D-Laurel) as CB-67 but never voted on, will also be considered. It is a variation of CB-40 that keeps the concept of the fee but adjusts time frames, and yardsticks by which schools are deemed too crowded.
Builders and developers say they can live with the $10,000 surcharge if the separate public-facilities fee is abolished. Schools activists are in accord, with one big difference: They want school enrollment caps to remain as a curb to over-development; builders say the caps should be nonbinding guidelines.
They also disagree on whether school crowding results from new housing or from increased family size in existing houses. "Most new schools are needed in developed areas," said S. Robert Kaufman, a developer-builder who also is a mentor at Morningside Elementary School. Still, he said, "I'm looking forward to building houses in a great market in a great county, and if that means I have to help you solve the schools, I'll help."
Kaufman said when the surcharge was doubled, from $2,500 to $5,000, in 2000, builders rushed to apply for permits before the effective date, thus locking in the lower fee, a move he said was reasonable and proper, based on fiscal commitments they'd already made. He said similar "grandfathering" should be written into the latest bill, which as drafted prohibits it.
Hubbard said his intention in the earlier bill was never to create a loophole allowing builders to avoid the higher surcharge. Based on a fiscal note prepared by the state's office of legislative services, county planners anticipated double the amount they received, netting a paper loss of $13.1 million.
John Rixey, coordinating analyst of legislative services, said his office merely updated the previous law, changing the effective date and amount of surcharge. "We don't get into the pros, cons or policy aspects of the bill," he said.
"We believed what legislative services were saying," said Donna Beck, a PTA activist who is working hard for passage of Hubbard's new legislation.
"The [new] Annapolis bill is a huge factor in all this," said Shapiro. "If it passes, sure, we'll have to reconsider the APF fee. We've got to look at the complete package and make sound decisions based on all these factors, holistically."
Developers and one other council veteran, Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), have raised another concern that Shapiro said he shares. With TRIM foreclosing other ways to raise money, new housing is the county's only reliable source of new property tax revenue.
Therefore, Shapiro said, taxing development too heavily or blocking it directly with growth caps tied to schools "could cut off our nose to spite our face, shutting off the revenue stream we need to build new schools. That would be crazy."
Shapiro said he would like the council to move cautiously on the whole subject, reaching a consensus before any new local legislation is even introduced. "We're better having a process in place before we have a bill," he said. "Otherwise, it becomes so-and-so's bill, people get wrapped into politics and locked into positions too early.
"Unless we know [the fate of Hubbard's bill] earlier than [the end of the 90-day General Assembly], I don't think we should be making a decision," Shapiro said. "But let's start the discussion."