Higher-than-expected tax revenue has given Prince George’s County its first financial cushion since County Executive Rushern L. Baker III took office five years ago.
On Thursday, Baker (D) proposed a fiscal 2017 budget that would use about $160 million in new revenue to boost school funding, fill vacancies in public-safety agencies and move ahead on stalled economic development projects — all without a tax-rate increase.
After years of lean finances and budget cuts, improving housing and job markets have led to projected gains in income, transfer and recordation and property taxes, said Thomas M. Himler, Baker’s chief administrative officer of budget, finance and economic development. That means officials had a smaller spending gap to address when they drafted the $3.7 billion budget proposal and more money available to fund their priorities.
Although Baker is proposing $100 million less for public schools than what schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell requested, the $1.9 billion proposal for schools, drawn from county and state sources, represents an increase of $93.3 million — about 5 percent — over this fiscal year.
“The past five years, we have been in winter doldrums. . . . This is spring eternal,” Himler said. “This is the first time we are making investments and can do some actual fun stuff.”
The County Council must review the proposal and adopt a balanced budget by June 1.
The proposal stands in stark contrast to what happened last year, when Baker proposed furloughs and a double-digit property-tax increase to generate money he said was desperately needed to improve schools.
After a public outcry and a bitter, prolonged battle, county lawmakers opted for a much-smaller tax hike and less education funding.
Baker looked grim and serious when he unveiled his budget proposal a year ago. On Thursday, he had a relaxed and lighthearted expression. He and his aides basked in what they said were the fruits of their efforts to boost the county government’s efficiency and reputation, attract new business and improve public schools.
“I can’t help but smile,” Baker said. “It is clear that our economic strategies are producing results.”
The spending plan includes $19 million in projected revenue related to the opening of the new MGM casino, which officials said should happen by the end of 2016, halfway through the budget year.
Himler dismissed as draconian a recent blue-ribbon commission report that said Prince George’s faces enduring structural budget challenges — including a strict limit on property taxes — that could lead to significant deficits in the future.
At the same time, he agreed with the commission that the county should have more budgeting flexibility.
The proposed budget would fill jobs aimed at improving the permitting process for businesses. Funds are also proposed to help revitalize the town of Suitland, starting with a project that would transform the long-blighted Suitland Manor community into a town center across from the Census Bureau campus.
Maxwell has said he wants additional dollars to increase teacher salaries, expand pre-kindergarten and reduce class sizes. In addition to the new money from the county, the system is scheduled to receive an equally significant boost in state aid.
The county budget also includes merit-pay increases for county employees; money for Prince George’s Community College to expand dual-enrollment for high school students and develop a new academic support program to ease the transition into higher education for graduates of county public schools; new classes of police officers, sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers and firefighters to fill vacancies that were frozen in previous budget cycles; and $1 million for the social and family services department to help prevent domestic violence.
Although crime overall is dropping in the county, homicides and shootings are on the rise. Some of the recent homicides included alarming domestic violence cases.