Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) unveiled a bold budget proposal Friday that would raise property tax rates for the first time in 35 years and includes layoffs and furloughs, all to free up more funding for schools, public safety and economic development.
The $3.63 billion budget proposal was received warily by the County Council, which has to adopt a final budget by June. Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said he and his colleagues will scrutinize Baker’s proposal carefully to see whether “the sacrifice is appropriate.”
One key issue is whether Baker can circumvent a 1978 law that requires the county to get voter approval to raise property taxes.
Baker says there is language in a 2012 school funding law that gives him authority to exceed the property tax cap to fund schools. He proposes raising the property tax rate from 96 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.11 per $100 of assessed value — the highest rate in the region. About 5,000 fixed- or very low-income households would get a tax credit to offset some or all of the increase.
Baker’s proposal would fully fund a $1.9 billion spending request from the county schools chief that would significantly increase per-pupil spending in hopes of bridging the gap in academic performance between county students and those in neighboring jurisdictions.
The proposal includes nearly $50 million more for public safety programs and scattered increases in funding for economic development, part of an overall increase of 8.2 percent from the current fiscal year’s spending plan.
“Let’s face it, the most sought-after counties in this region, this state and this nation are the ones that are safe and have the best public education systems,” Baker said. “I am asking the County Council . . . to raise revenues to educate our children.”
Citizen activists who have defended the property tax cap in the past said the issue of whether to raise rates should be put on the ballot. “The voters have told them over and over again to leave us alone and look to other sources,” longtime resident Judy Robinson said. “It’s government as usual.”
To help pay for the new initiatives, Baker proposed eliminating 110 county government jobs and furloughing all county employees for five days — despite a recent warning from the council that furloughs were a non-
“We haven’t always seen eye to eye with the county executive on the issue of furloughs,” Franklin said.
He called Baker’s proposal a “painful budget for many employees.”
The furloughs would apply to all county employees, including Baker. Administration officials said they would negotiate the specifics of the job cuts with the council in coming weeks.
Baker — who coasted to a second term in November and must leave office in 2018 because of the county’s term-limits law — said he was determined to keep boosting schools, public safety and economic development and has already trimmed other spending in every way he can think of.
“We cannot wait, we cannot do it halfway, and we cannot be tentative in how we do it,” Baker said. “This is our moment. . . . This is why I ran for county executive.”
As revenue remained flat over the last four years, the county government “stretched our resources and we made things work,” Baker said. To cover revenue shortfalls, the county shrank its budget reserves, eliciting a warning from Wall Street that more dipping could jeopardize the county’s bond rating.
For years, county leaders have said their ability to raise additional revenue through property taxes was limited because of the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, or TRIM, the 1978 law approved by county voters that said any property tax increase must be put on the ballot. The law has survived repeated repeal attempts.
But Baker said Friday that a three-year-old state law that shifted teacher pensions costs to local governments provides him with the authority to raise taxes without voter approval.
It allows counties to exceed local property tax caps in order to maintain school funding at levels required by the state. Although the proposed budget would finance the school system at $117 million above state requirements, Baker said he believes that a provision in the law that says counties can “exceed county charter limitations on local property taxes for the purpose of funding the approved budget of the local school board” gives him and the council the opportunity to cover the entire $1.9 billion funding request.
The budget “provides a framework for propelling the county into new heights,” Baker said. “We had a vision and turned it into bold action.”
Baker’s proposal leaves intact many of his prized economic development initiatives — such as a $50 million incentive fund for business, which the council had considered cutting, and funding commitments for a regional hospital. Baker said he expects those initiatives to yield tangible economic benefits in the near future.
The new public safety funding would go toward hiring 100 police officers to replace retiring personnel and expand the force and building three new police stations. County firefighters would receive funding to hire 35 recruits and complete construction of three stations.
There is also additional money for the corrections department, the sheriff’s office and the court system.
The county will hold public information sessions on the budget in coming weeks, and the council will have hearings to gather community input as it begins its deliberations.