Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson yesterday proposed a $1.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year that requires residents to pay more and most government agencies to spend less.
Under the 2004 spending plan presented to the County Council, residents' local income tax would go from the current 3.1 percent to 3.2 percent. Johnson said that would raise the tax bill by $50 for a resident making $50,000 a year.
"We are in difficult financial times," Johnson said. "Still we are trying to move forward with a lack of resources."
The budget proposal, which is 4 percent higher than last year's, provides the first substantive look at Johnson's priorities.
The majority of funds go to the county school system, which would receive $1.17 billion, or 65.4 percent of the budget. Police and public safety would get $232 million, or 12.9 percent. That includes a 3.1 percent increase to the police department.
Other agencies' funds would be cut back. One of the largest reductions (3.4 percent) would be for the state's attorney's office.
"Some had to take a greater hit than others," Johnson said.
State's Attorney Glenn Ivey (D) said he did not think that the county prosecutor's office took a deeper reduction because of recent tension between the two officials.
"Most of this took place before all of that nonsense," said Ivey, referring to recent clashes with Johnson about the handling of a domestic violence case. "We negotiated in good faith. This is going to make it more difficult to do our jobs, but we'll perform."
While Johnson proposes a 0.9 percent reduction in his office's overall budget, his community relations operation would receive an increase of 23 percent, from $1.3 million to $1.6 million. The proposed increase will pay for a new Division of Multicultural Affairs that would, according to his proposal, "extend community services to residents of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds" and pay for a new bus "to carry out county executive initiatives that promote positive community relations." The office will go from 10 full-time employees to 13.
With a voter-imposed cap on property taxes, Prince George's officials have struggled to find ways to increase revenue. Previous efforts to remove the cap, currently at 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, have failed. And Johnson's proposal to boost the income tax did not sit well with at least one community activist.
Judy Robinson, who led a successful campaign in 1996 to keep the cap in place, said she will fight any effort to increase taxes without receiving voter approval. In 1996, voters approved a ballot question requiring the County Council to seek voter approval for any local tax increase.
Johnson said yesterday that the increase, which would raise $4.3 million in the first year and $10 million next year, does not have to go to a referendum.
"I don't know what authority he is going on," Robinson said. The referendum "said any tax or fee must be approved by the voters. It's a simple concept. I would say Mr. Johnson is going to be a one-term county executive if he expects to bypass the voters."
The county enacted an 8 percent tax on all telephone service last year after state lawmakers mandated the levy as a way to increase school funding. The county anticipates raising $27 million from the telecommunications tax. Robinson said that tax should have gone before voters.
"It is complete and total arrogance to try and do it again," she said. "I let it ride last year, but they can depend on a fight this year."
It was unclear yesterday what changes, if any, the council may make to the budget. The council must adopt a spending plan by June 1.
"It's a fiscally conservative budget, a responsible budget, a competent budget," council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) said. "What the budget says is that there is a level of professionalism and confidence that is being maintained."
But Shapiro hinted that the council, which he said in previous years has rubber-stamped the executive's proposal, will take a different position this year.
"You may see a lot more budget activism on the side of the council than in years past," he said.