For his final year in office, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III is proposing a $4.09 billion budget that is the county’s largest ever and, his administration says, shows progress made during Baker’s eight-year tenure.
When Baker (D), who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, undertook his first budget process in 2010, the county faced a $77 million shortfall, led the state in foreclosures and struggled with a high crime rate.
Today, thanks to the national economic recovery and rising property values and commercial development in the county fueled in part by a decrease in crime, “Our financial situation in Prince George’s is the best it’s ever been,” Baker said in a news conference. “This didn’t happen by accident. We’ve made key investments where we knew we would get the greatest rates of return.”
Baker, who has faced sharp criticism recently for his handling of controversies involving the county’s public schools, increases education spending in his proposed budget by $72 million. The $2.05 billion he allocated to the school system — which met the funding request submitted by the Board of Education — represents a 3.7 percent increase over last year, and would go toward staff compensation, full-day pre-kindergarten and language immersion programs.
During the eight years Baker has been in office, the school system’s budget has increased more than $400 million — a 25 percent increase. About $110 million is allocated for renovations and the construction of new schools in this year’s budget.
“For folks who claim he doesn’t care about education, the facts present otherwise,” budget chief Thomas Himler said.
The budget does not include an increase in the property tax rate, although some homeowners could pay about $50 more in taxes because their property values are rising.
Baker attempted to raise taxes by 15.6 percent in 2015 to provide funds for county schools. The proposal generated a strong backlash from county residents and was scaled back significantly by the Prince George’s County Council.
Baker said that because it is election season, there will inevitably be “a lot of chatter about what’s wrong in Prince George’s County.” But what cannot be disputed, he added, is that the next executive will take over a county in much stronger financial shape than in 2010.
He credited his signature Economic Development Incentive fund with creating or retaining 12,000 jobs in the county and leveraging $1 billion in private investment. Revenue from the MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino, which opened in 2016, is expected to total $33.4 million in fiscal 2019, about $1.8 million more than the county had previously estimated.
Baker’s final budget would provide funding for 125 new police officers, 60 firefighters and 60 correctional officers. There is also funding to complete a new police headquarters on Presidential Parkway and begin construction of a forensics lab.
Baker increased public safety spending by $193 million over the course of his tenure, providing funding for 400 new police officers. Himler said that investment has been a “phenomenal success” in reducing crime, which is down 50 percent since 2010, police say.
Nearly $117 million is allocated for Prince George’s Community College, which this fall would implement Pathways, a national community college model that redesigns academic degree programs to include more guidance to help students graduate. The county’s contribution to funding for the community college increased from $30 million to $42 million over Baker’s tenure.
Baker — a book lover who says he still carries his library card — also proposed increasing funding to the library system by 2.9 percent over last year. The $30.9 million would go toward operating funds, technology upgrades and targeted programming, including Books From Birth, which delivers one book per month to children younger than 5.
The County Council will spend the next several weeks reviewing Baker’s proposal and must adopt a final budget resolution before June 1.
County Council Chair Danielle M. Glaros said in a statement that the council looks forward to working with Baker, residents and all stakeholders “to produce a final budget that strengthens our communities and reflects our shared priorities for job creation, quality education, affordable health care, safer communities and a thriving economy.”