The MGM casino at National Harbor won’t open its doors for six more months, but Prince George’s County officials are already feuding over how to spend the public revenue its video lottery games are expected to generate.
The county’s share of proceeds from the games — an estimated $4.5 million for fiscal 2017 — is designated for “local impact grant funds,” which are supposed to benefit neighborhoods affected by the construction and opening of the casino, which will be built on the banks of the Potomac River across from Alexandria, Va.
A spending plan put forth by the administration of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) allocates half the money to bringing school buildings up to code, with the rest funding 10 new police officers and seven new firefighters for nearby stations, workforce-development training, summer youth-employment programs and community grants.
Some residents and activists say the county should have sought more input before deciding how to spend the money, which they say would be better used to improve roads and sidewalks and fund initiatives in the neighborhoods of Oxon Hill and Fort Washington that were most impacted by the casino.
“I am, overall, disappointed at the lack of transparency,” County Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) said Tuesday at a briefing that was organized to air the community’s concerns.
Patterson said the process moved forward “without much input from those of us in the community. I think it’s a sham.”
Similar conflicts have played out in some of the other communities that are home to Maryland’s gaming facilities.
In 2014, for example, the local development council for the Horseshoe Casino sparred with Baltimore City officials over a plan to divert $3 million in anticipated impact funds to replace an underground steam pipe near the casino.
Residents complained that it was a misuse of money they’d rather see used for security and cleaning up neighborhoods, among other things. In the end, the casino, the city and another company contributed money to the steam-pipe project, reducing the amount of impact grant money they needed.
Legislators in Prince George’s tacitly approved Baker’s appropriations when they approved the county’s operating budget two weeks ago. But at least some council members say they plan to try to tweak the plan in the next few weeks before giving final approval on how the money will be spent.
State law requires jurisdictions to create local development councils to make recommendations about how to use local revenue from the impact grant funds.
The Prince George’s local council first met in December. By the next monthly meeting, Baker’s staff had provided hard copies of the proposed spending plan, which the local council had 45 days to review.
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), who chaired the body, said in a letter to Baker that the council ran out of time to consider any changes before it approved the plan. In the future, Muse wrote, the council wants more specific information so it can make a proper needs assessment and ensure that funds for the proposed services can’t be provided through the county’s budget.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Patterson got into a heated exchange with the county budget director, Thomas Himler, calling the “measly $225,000” that was appropriated for grants for local nonprofit organizations “insulting.”
Patterson also complained that money for officers and firefighters should come from the operating budget, not the local impact funds.
“Did we do it perfect? No,” Himler said. He told the council that public meetings about how to spend the funds had been well-attended and that the items in the proposals were all things the community has asked for during past discussions about the casino.
Himler said funds for workforce development and youth jobs will go to residents of areas affected by the casino. He also noted that the additional fire and police officers were specifically in response to the impact of the casino opening.
“It’s insane to me that we are having this conversation,” Himler said later in an interview. “We are not supplanting. If I didn’t have MGM, I wouldn’t fund these officers.”
The council will hold a public hearing on the spending plan before giving its final approval, County Council Chair Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) said after Tuesday’s briefing.
“What you saw was the beginning of something that hasn’t been done before,” Davis said. “This is another budget process occurring in miniature.”