Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III on Wednesday backed away from a proposal to increase property taxes to generate new money for the county’s troubled public schools, — tacitly acknowledging that he did not have the support he needed from the County Council.
Instead of raising the tax rate by 15 percent, which would have produced $133 million, Baker (D) announced that he would seek $65 million in additional school funding in the budget the council is scheduled to vote on Thursday.
“We think this is a reasonable compromise,” Baker said. “Anything less is unacceptable to this administration.”
Through a spokesman, council members declined to comment on the revamped proposal in advance of Thursday’s vote. Before Wednesday, not a single council member had come out in support of the 15 percent tax increase.
The change is a last-minute effort to salvage at least part of Baker’s ambitious school improvement plan, which he describes as critical to his mission of drawing new residents, elevating property values and bringing Prince George’s on par with its wealthier neighbors.
“It won’t get us to the top 10, but it will move us up,” said Baker, who tried to sell his original proposal by promising that county schools would be among the best in the state by 2020.
Cutting the additional funding by more than half would mean no digital literacy program, no new targeted professional development, no universal breakfast program and no literacy coaches in middle school, Baker said. Also, the county would not be able to expand its gifted-and-talented program.
But teachers would get raises and retention pay, successful programs such as dual enrollment and arts integration would be expanded and family engagement resources will increase — albeit not at the originally proposed level.
“This reduced investment keeps intact many of the programs and investments initially proposed but at a slower yet still acceptable pace of implementation,” Baker said.
The second-term county executive has faced a firestorm of opposition since February when he proposed doing away with a 35-year-old cap on property tax rates. Homeowners, many still reeling from the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, were skeptical of a double-digit rate hike that would have given Prince George’s the highest tax rate in the state. They also questioned the wisdom of pouring tens of millions in additional spending into the long-troubled public school system.
Baker said the clamor that his plan was “too fast and too aggressive” led him to reconsider.
He did not specify on Wednesday how the $65 million should be generated. Aides to Baker said the council could use any tax and fee increases proposed in the budget — in addition to property tax hikes, there are telecommunications taxes, hotel taxes and permitting fees — to drive revenue for public schools. But they cautioned that the money could not come from cash reserves or other one-time sources.
Last week, the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce suggested cutting Baker’s proposed tax increase nearly in half, to 7.8 percent. A tax hike of that size would generate nearly $65 million.
Chamber President David S. Harrington said his organization endorses Baker’s latest proposal because it is “in line with what we suggested,” to the county executive and council.
“We support the direction the county executive is going,” Harrington said.
School board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8), an opponent of the 15 percent tax hike proposal and the only board member to clearly state his position, applauded Baker’s concession Wednesday. But he said he still doesn’t support raising taxes to generate more money for schools, unless the county puts additional measures in place to track how money is spent.
“There is a serious lack of trust with the way we are currently managing our resources,” Burroughs said.
Board of Education Chairman Segun C. Eubanks said that Baker and lawmakers have a difficult job and that “we are going to respect the decision they make collectively. . . . Anything that increases our funding will get us closer to our goal.”
To further cushion the blow of any tax hike, Baker said he would expand the income eligibility for a property tax credit from households with income of $60,000 or less to households with income of $70,000 or less. The change would make roughly 11,000 property owners total eligible for the credit, officials said.
Baker also asked the council to “sunset” any tax increases as of June 30, 2020, by which time the county government expects MGM casino at National Harbor and other projects to be pouring new tax dollars into county coffers.
During budget hearings and public meetings this spring, residents repeatedly asked whether revenues from the casino project and other big-dollar developments could be used — instead of a property tax hike — to fund the school spending plan.