Correction: An earlier version of this article included incorrect figures for Prince George’s county’s reserve fund. In December, the fund was $277 million, not about $250 million. If County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s budget is approved, the reserve fund will drop to $257 million, not $225 million, according to Thomas M. Himler, a budget expert in Baker’s administration. This version has been corrected.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III unveiled a $2.7 billion spending plan Thursday that boosts schools, public safety, health care and economic development, and includes no layoffs, but also no pay raises for the county’s 6,000 employees.
Baker’s new budget plan would total about the same spending as last year’s. But at a news conference in Upper Marlboro, Baker (D) said the tight budget had forced the administration to think about new ways of doing the county’s business more efficiently as it attempts to fund its key goals.
The goal, Baker said, is to transform the county “into a nationally recognized jurisdiction that has a thriving economy, great schools, safe neighborhoods, access to high-quality health care, effective human services for those in need, and provides a clean and sustainable environment.”
Prince George’s has substantial fiscal challenges, the highest home foreclosure rate in Maryland and a voter-imposed tax cap that makes it difficult to find money for increases in government spending.
Baker is asking most county agencies to trim expenses by 5 percent and is proposing one tax hike: an increase in the recordation tax by 50 cents, to $3 for every $500 real estate transaction. That is expected to net the county about $5 million, one of several ways Baker is trying to plug a $126 million shortfall.
About $50 million in savings comes from nixing cost-of- living raises and merit increases for county employees, although teachers, whose budget is handled separately, could get a raise if the school board approves it. Most county employees are expected to receive back-to-back lump sum payments that will total about $2,200 per employee. The issue is being negotiated with several labor unions, and so far, only one, the Fraternal Order of Police, has resisted and has taken the matter to arbitration.
Baker said his administration has had to confront a sobering reality: “We are relying on everyone in government to do more with less.”
As of late last year, the county had a reserve fund of about $277 million; the new budget would decrease that to about $257 million, money Baker has said he would only use for one-time spending. Keeping a large reserve fund, he said, has been important to Wall Street, which has maintained the county’s Triple A bond rating, allowing it to borrow money at cheaper rates.
Under Baker’s budget plan, the county’s public schools, Prince George’s Community College and the county’s public libraries are among the winners — the public school system will receive about $30 million more than its current budget, for a total of $1.6 billion, with most of the increase tied to a boost in state aid. Police and fire departments will be allowed to add to their ranks. The county will spend $11 million of its $50 million Economic Development Incentive Fund to try to attract new businesses, and help retain others, an amount that is an increase of $4 million from the current fiscal year.
Baker also has proposed adding 16 new staff members, mostly lawyers, to the state’s attorney’s office, the county’s chief prosecutor. He will spend about $300,000 to establish an office for ethics and government accountability.
In Baker’s $439 million capital budget, also unveiled Thursday, school renovations remain on track as does funding for a new police station in Fort Washington and other new public safety facilities.
The capital plan also calls for a $32 million increase in spending on roads, curbs and community beautification, as well as additional funds that would be aimed at transit-oriented projects — even though the operating budget for the county’s public works and transportation would be reduced by about $710,000, or 0.4 percent.
Baker also plans to create a 311 call center, housed in the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, to help handle non-emergency calls.
Still unclear is how much money will come from the state. Among Baker’s chief worries: Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wants to shift the cost of teacher and library pensions back to the localities. That could cost Prince George’s several million dollars annually, depending on the final formula worked out in Annapolis.
“We don’t have a lot of ways to raise revenue,” Baker said at the news conference. “So am I concerned? Yes.”
Baker, who last year championed an effort, along with the state, to build a major new medical center in the county, will continue to contribute $15 million to the ailing Dimensions Healthcare System, which operates the county-owned Prince George’s Hospital Center, until the new facility is built.
The council will begin its budget review next week; final action is expected by late May.