The Prince George's County Council introduced a bill yesterday that would allow new residential construction only if police meet specific targets for staffing and emergency response time.
The legislation, proposed by council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) and supported by six of the eight other members, is intended to ensure that the county's rapid growth not compromise public safety.
"We have to take care of the people who live here now before we start adding more homes and stretching our police and fire that much further," Peters said.
Peters said the council also plans to push the General Assembly to allow the county to assess a surcharge of $8,000 per housing unit on developers. The money would be used to pay for new fire stations, police facilities and other emergency service needs.
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2003 that allows the county to charge developers a $12,000 surcharge to help pay for school construction.
The Prince George's police department now has about 1,200 officers, or 84.5 percent of its authorized strength of 1,420.
Under Peters's bill, the department would have to reach 90 percent, or 1,278 officers, by the end of this year. If not, plans for new housing units would not be approved.
By December 2005, the department would have to be at 95 percent, or 1,349 officers, and at full strength by December 2006.
The legislation also sets an eight-minute response time for emergency police calls and a 16-minute maximum wait for service on non-emergencies. The bill does not currently impose response times for fire and rescue, which has been a concern for many people who live in the county's rural tier, the most undeveloped portion of the county.
Peters said he plans to amend the bill in committee to cover fire and rescue services after he receives additional information about response times.
In 2003, a Washington Post sampling of 142 proposed developments recommended for approval by the county planning board staff in 2001-02 showed that nine were outside the travel time standards for fire, ambulance and paramedic service. Fifty-six fell short in one or more categories. Developments cleared by county staff members are nearly always approved by the planning board.
County officials said they will probably meet the 90 percent officer staffing target by the end of the year. A police cadet class of about 40 people is expected to graduate this year, and another will graduate early next year.
Last week, just before the number of homicides for the year reached 100, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) pledged to hire 150 police officers a year for six years. If that goal is met, it would satisfy the requirements set out in Peters's bill.
Police union officials, who say the department loses about 120 officers a year, have questioned whether hiring 150 officers is enough for a county of 840,000 that is growing rapidly.
Peters, who heads the council's Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee, said he hopes that the legislation will prompt the county to look more closely at its authorized-strength number, which he considers to be "lower than what it should be for the size of our county."
John Erzen, a spokesman for Johnson, said the county executive has not yet reviewed the bill.
Last year, the council attempted to slow the pace of construction by passing a bill that would have prevented the planning board from approving a subdivision until necessary road improvements were made.
Johnson vetoed the bill, saying it would also effect commercial development. Peters said he did not include commercial development in his legislation.
F. Hamer Campbell, who represents the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, said he had not seen the bill. "Of course, anything that may end up in a moratorium is going to be concern for us," Campbell said.
The bill will be discussed next Wednesday by the council's Public Safety and Fiscal Management Committee.