The Prince George's County Council is beginning to pore over the $1.8 billion budget that County Executive Jack B. Johnson presented to them last week.
Members of the council said they plan to look closely at the budget but so far were generally pleased with the proposal Johnson offered.
"It's a cautious and conservative proposal," said Councilman Thomas Hendershot (D-New Carrollton).
Johnson said because of "difficult financial times" he was unable to take on some of the initiatives that he campaigned on.The proposal represents an overall increase of 4.1 percent or $71 million over last year.
Johnson shifted money between agencies, taking a little from here and a little from there to put money into some of his priorities. For example, he set aside $5 million for road resurfacing and sidewalk improvements, one of his campaign commitments.
"I'm convinced that the agenda will still come to fruition," Johnson said. "Maybe not in the time we would like, but it will come to fruition."
Johnson proposes scaling back spending at most county agencies, not dipping into the county reserves and requiring residents to dig a little deeper into their pockets.
Under the plan, the Prince George's Community College will see its funding remain flat, while others such as the State's Attorney's Office and the Department of Environmental Resources would experience a decrease of 3.4 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.
Johnson suggests keeping $125 million in the county reserve fund and raising the local income tax from 3.1 percent to 3.2 percent, a move that he says could generate $4.3 million this year and up to $10 million next year. Under the plan, a resident making $50,000 a year would see the tax bill go up by about $50.
Hendershot, a longtime backer of lifting the voter-imposed cap on property taxes, said the budget proposal shows the county needs new sources of money.
"It's very clear in this budget that the county revenue stream is not what it needs to be to meet the county services," Hendershot said.
But Judy Robinson, a Hyattsville resident who successfully fought efforts to do away with the tax cap, known as TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders) said it should be up to the voters to decide what is or isn't enough. She said a 1996 ballot proposal that passed overwhelmingly in a referendum required the county to seek voter approval for any local tax increase.
"We tax everything that walks in this county," said Robinson, noting the county tax on telephone, trash removal and parks.
The majority of the funds in the proposed budget would go to the county school system, which would receive nearly $1.18 billion, or 65.4 percent of the budget. That is an increase of about $70 million or 6.4 percent. The extra money for schools is mainly due to a new 8 percent telephone tax the state mandated to increase school funding.
Police and public safety would get $232 million, or 12.9 percent of the total budget. The budget does not call for any additional officers for the police force, which has about 1,300 sworn officers. The county estimates that there is a attrition rate of seven officers a month, and classes graduating from police academy in November 2003 and May 2004 would offset any loss from retirement or resignations.
Johnson proposes a 0.9 percent reduction in his office's overall budget, but his community relations operation would receive an increase of 23 percent, from $1.3 million to $1.6 million, in his budget.
County Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) said Johnson appears to be "following the same conservative fiscal policies of his predecessor," noting that Johnson wants to keep 7 percent or $125 million in reserve.
Councilman David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) said Johnson is to be commended for increasing social services funding by 9.6 percent and the school system by 6.4 percent.
"I do have to give him credit for trying to tackle some of the social issues and education," Harrington said. "The other things I haven't had a chance to look at."
Once the council has a chance to study the plan further, Shapiro said he expects the members to have more than a few questions for Johnson about his proposal. In previous years, councils have made limited changes to the spending plan presented by the executive.
Over the next two weeks the council will review the proposals for each of the county agencies. It has scheduled two public hearings, April 21 and April 28. Both hearings will be at 7 p.m. in the county government building in Upper Marlboro.