Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the number of unpaid days ordered by County Executive Rushern Baker III, the affected departments and the potential savings from buyouts. The story has been corrected.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III is proposing up to five unpaid furlough days for county employees as part of the $2.7 billion spending plan he unveiled Thursday. The budget, which is essentially flat when compared with current spending, also includes modest increases for schools and public safety and preserves funds for economic development and neighborhood revival programs.
The budget includes a 3.2 percent cut to public libraries and reorganizes the county’s permitting, code enforcement, environment and public works agencies. It must be reviewed by the County Council, which during Baker’s first two years in office has generally rubber-stamped his spending plans with minimal revisions. It’s not clear if this year will be the same; council members have in the past raised questions about any impact on employees’ paychecks.
Baker’s proposal sets aside $27 million to buy a new police department headquarters — a complex of buildings near Suitland that the school system tried unsuccessfully to acquire several years ago. The budget also includes funds to buy 125 police cars, two new fire engines, a ladder truck and 12 new ambulances.
Hiring in the police, fire, corrections and sheriff’s departments would continue, but at a slower pace. The county prosecutor would get funds for two new investigators but would be unable to hire seven attorneys to fill positions that are vacant.
More than half the county’s budget goes for schools, which would receive $1.69 billion, an increase of $30.3 million. The allocation for public safety programs is $550.8 million, an increase of about $7 million. The plan, which Baker outlined at a news conference at the county government headquarters in Upper Marlboro, also reflects cuts in many agencies to plug a $152 million deficit that officials faced in the fall as they began to craft the new spending plan. Once approved by the council, the budget will take effect July 1.
“Without a doubt, this has been our toughest budget year yet,” Baker (D) said.
The budget proposal comes at a challenging time for the county and the Washington region, with many unknowns associated with the federal sequester spending cuts that could prompt reductions later in the year at the local level, officials said.
Many county agencies rely heavily on federal funds. For instance, the $100 million county housing agency is about 80 percent funded with federal money, and federal housing officials have warned of a possible 5 percent cut in what they give the county. This may cause local officials to adjust their budgeting later this spring, before the plan gets final approval from the County Council in late May.
The unpaid furloughs will affect most of the county’s 6,000-person workforce, including public safety employees. Baker, who criticized his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), for using furloughs to balance the budget, pledged when he took office that he would avoid furloughs if at all possible, and he held to that for this first two years in office.
This time, Baker is hoping to reach an agreement with the county’s public employee unions to give most workers what will amount to a 1.5 percent pay increase after the cost of furloughs is subtracted. The county also is offering buyouts to senior employees, at a potential savings of about $19 million.
Council Chair Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) did not address the proposed furloughs in a statement thanking Baker for his “diligence” in formulating the budget. She declined to comment on the details of his proposal.
Property taxes, which are capped by law, remain at 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, but many tax bills will be reduced because home values are down. The median value of a house in Prince George’s is $312,800. With a homestead credit for owner-occupied homes, the owner would pay about $2,717 in property taxes.
Jim Estepp, a former County Council chairman who heads the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said he thought Baker had attempted to address key needs in a challenging fiscal climate.
“That sounds like the right set of priorities,” Estepp said, while lamenting cuts to the library system.
“Clearly anything related to public safety and education is where the greatest investment ought to be, but I hate to see cuts to the library system that is part of the education system and it is terrific,” he said.
The new police headquarters, officials said, has been needed for several years and will enable the department to consolidate operations that are scattered throughout the county, such as records and internal affairs, into the two-building facility off Pennsylvania Avenue. There would be about 220,000 square feet of space and the potential to purchase adjacent buildings if needed.
Tom Himler, who oversees county budgeting and finance, said that county officials hope to acquire the buildings by the summer and begin moving police operations from the Barlowe Road headquarters in piecemeal fashion.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.