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Alsobrooks proposes $5.4B budget, balancing hopes and obligations

County executive warns heavy obligations for education reforms suck up limited county resources, complicate effort to diversify tax base

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) unveils the fiscal 2024 proposed budget at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center in College Park, Md., on Wednesday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) presented an optimistic picture of county revenue on Wednesday as she unveiled a $5.4 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1, but she again took issue with how much the county has to pay to implement sweeping state education reforms.

She fears the ballooning costs of education mandates will swallow up the county’s resources.

“This year, our new revenue are $189 million,” she said. “But now because of the Kirwan funding formula, nearly half of all of our new revenue must also go to education.”

Alsobrooks said she tried to be prudent, not raising taxes even as the county faces a mandated $88.4 million increase in education spending under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act, commonly known as Kirwan. The law, passed in 2021 over Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, called for dramatic new investments in education to guarantee that all students receive quality instruction no matter where they live.

Alsobrooks has been a proponent of the law’s ideals but has been vocal for years about how Prince George’s tax base, combined with a large population of high-need students, makes it difficult for the jurisdiction to conjure the funds to implement the education requirements. Meeting the state-mandated projections over the next decade could become troublesome as the county endeavors to grow its economy and diversify its tax base, Alsobrooks has said.

The state government, too, is grappling with how to pay for Kirwan reforms that are more expensive than planned, staring down $1.6 billion in unanticipated education costs over the next five years.

The financial weight of Kirwan means the county has to become more intentional about where it collects and generates money in the future, Alsobrooks said. The budget calls for roughly 62 percent to be spent on education and 20 percent on public safety, leaving 18 percent for other government services such as affordable housing and environmental protection.

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“Long term, we cannot keep balancing our budget on the backs of residents, and we cannot put the future of Prince George’s County on a credit card,” Alsobrooks said, trumpeting the growth opportunities she anticipates that will come along with the Blue Line Corridor project and other developments built around transit hubs in the county.

Prince George’s County is in the thick of creating a desirable tax base that doesn’t rely on its homeowners, but such change doesn’t happen instantaneously, she noted.

Alsobrooks acknowledges that she is swimming against the current of past legislation such as the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, better known as TRIM, which put a limit on property taxes that could be levied in the county.

“The point of the matter is we don’t want to continue to go to the state to ask them to help us pay our bills,” she said. “But [what] we’re asking them to do is to invest in our economy in a way that allows us to pay our own bills. That’s the reason the FBI is so important. We’re not asking anybody to give us any handout.”

Former Prince George’s county executive Rushern Baker III said in an interview that Alsobrooks is maneuvering in similar ways his administration had to with tax caps looming.

“You always had to move around it,” he said. “Has it hampered us? Yes. Are there ways around it? Yes. It is going to take time.”

Baker was a proponent of Kirwan when he was campaigning for governor despite concerns about the price tag.

“In order to make systemic changes, we knew we would have to invest a large amount of money to it,” he said. “The state has to understand that there is going to be need for help.”

Budget limitations and the challenges that come with them are nothing new, said Alvin Thornton, former chair of Prince George’s County Board of Education.

Thornton, who was appointed by Alsobrooks in 2018, was part of the commission that created the Kirwan funding formula that Alsobrooks said presents issues for counties like Prince George’s.

Maryland is increasing the county’s obligation to educate its students so they are on par with worldwide educational standards, not burdening the county with another bill, he said.

“We’re not going to say that it’s unsustainable. We’re going to say that you need to come up with different revenue sources,” he said. “I believe that if we do this, it pays for itself. … How much money do we spend on imprisoning people? How much do we spend on recuperating failed, non-graduating students? … How much money do we spend on people who failed educationally?”

Budget concerns are likely to rise along with those not wanting to pay more taxes and other local governance issues, Thornton said.

“All of those things will happen,” he said. “But as long as you have a vision which is bigger than those local little fights, I hope we can move forward.”

The County Council will spend the next several months reviewing the spending plan ahead of a June 1 deadline.