The head of the Prince George's County police union yesterday denounced a plan by the County Council to cut nearly $2 million from the fund for overtime pay in the 2005 budget.
"It's crazy," said Percy Alston, head of the police union. "All the new development they are doing, building shopping centers and houses, and they expect us to handle it with a smaller police department than we did 10 years ago."
The reduction in overtime pay is one of several last-minute changes the council has made to the $1.96 billion budget proposed last month by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). The council is scheduled to adopt the spending plan at a meeting today.
The revised budget also cuts available overtime pay for fire and corrections personnel while boosting school spending by an extra $4.5 million. The additional money is earmarked for class-size reduction, building upkeep and textbooks. It brings the county's 2005 allotment to the school system to $1.27 billion. The council also plans to give Prince George's Community College an extra $1.7 million.
For county school officials, yesterday's budget news was an improvement over Tuesday's, when the council voted to block $4.9 million in the district's capital budget to expand five high schools. Instead, the council resolved to study whether to build a new high school.
It is unusual for the Prince George's council to make significant changes to the proposed operating budget. Such spending plans are normally rubber-stamped. But Johnson has had a rocky relationship with this council, feuding with it on a number of fronts, including the bailout of Prince George's Hospital Center.
Council members who support shifting the funds said yesterday that the moves are not about past disagreements with Johnson.
"What you are seeing is checks and balances at work," council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg) said. "Government works best when it has examination and scrutiny from both sides."
"This is not about winners and losers, there aren't any winners and losers," Vice Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) said. "This is about this council being willing to make the tough decisions."
Council members said they acknowledged the importance of overtime pay for public safety workers. But, Dean said, the council wants to look at why overtime has increased so steadily. Last year, the county spent nearly $20 million on police overtime. At the same time, it hired only 50 of the 100 additional officers allowed by the 2004 budget.
Alston, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, said he was "dumbfounded" when he learned that the council was reducing police overtime.
"I think the answer is crystal clear," he said, addressing Dean's question. "When you don't have enough people, you have to make sure there is somebody there to do the job."
The budget adjustments also reduce overtime for both fire and corrections personnel by $1.5 million. Although what firefighters are losing from one hand they are gaining with the other: The department will be able to hire 30 more paramedics with a $400,000 increase.
Council Chairman Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) said the reductions in overtime spending will not affect services. If more money is needed to cover staffing, the county executive can ask for it in a supplemental appropriation, he said.
Jim Keary, Johnson's spokesman, said the county executive is not upset over the differences to his spending plan.
"The changes affect less than half of 1 percent of the budget," Keary said. "The county executive's priorities remain intact with the changes being made."
But at least one council member said the moves are ill-advised.
"I think it is unwise to appear to pit the county's top two priorities [education and public safety] against each other," said council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who voted against the proposal during a committee vote earlier this week.
Johnson's budget also includes the second-year installment of $5 million for Dimensions Healthcare System, which operates Prince George's Hospital Center. The allocation is part of the deal struck between Johnson and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to help save the hospital system.
The council is working on a resolution, which could be taken up today, that recommends how the money be spent.
The council suggests that $2 million be used to pay the "turnaround team," which will advise the oversight committee on management. It also does not want any of the money used to pay for the system's pension fund.