Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III lashed out at lawmakers Friday for rejecting his dramatic school spending plan and accused them of having misplaced priorities for approving a smaller tax hike to benefit county parks and planning.
In addition to a 4-cent property tax increase that will generate far less for public schools than Baker had asked for, the County Council on Thursday approved a 1
National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
“Why parks are more important than schools, I don’t know,” Baker (D) said in an interview. “Park and Planning is a luxury.”
The council also included small increases in the county’s hotel and telecommunications taxes in the budget it approved Thursday. Lawmakers rejected furloughs and layoffs proposed by Baker, introduced legislation to earmark revenues from the soon-to-open MGM casino for education, and established a commission to study ways to fix a structural budget deficit.
The council did away with a 37-year-old property tax cap by approving a 4-cent boost in the property tax rate, which will generate about $34 million more for public schools. Baker had sought a $133 million increase.
“The county executive’s focus has been on education. But the council thinks that is too myopic a focus,” said Mel Franklin (D-
Upper Marlboro), chairman of the council. “Our budget focuses on the entire government.”
The park and planning department — which is responsible for land-use, zoning and the county’s more than 1,250 recreational facilities — is facing a structural deficit, officials said. The agency is funded by a tax that is tied to property assessments. The tax will rise from 27.9 cents to 29.4 cents per $100 of assessed value unless Baker vetoes that provision of the budget.
During budget hearings, agency heads told the legislature they would have to make “drastic reductions” without more funding, saying that sagging housing values have cut into their revenue base.
The park and planning department requested a 3-cent increase in the tax rate. Getting less than that, officials said, could mean reduced hours or closures at aquatic centers, parks or museums; fewer planning and transportation studies; and deferred mowing cycles at public facilities.
Baker said the agency’s pleas were not compelling enough to persuade him to request a tax increase for parks and planning rather than for the county’s long-struggling school system, which is one of his top priorities.
Better schools, Baker says, are a key part of drawing new residents, businesses and prosperity to a county that has lagged behind other parts of the region. He argued unsuccessfully this spring that a hefty tax increase would eventually pay dividends by paving the way for better schools, higher demand for housing and increased property values.
“We have one of the best park systems in the country,” Baker recalled telling Betty Hewlett, head of the county Planning Board and the Park and Planning Commission, during budget discussions. “And we’ve got to tighten our belts.”
The council thought differently, Franklin said. The park and planning agency has a direct impact on a large number of county residents who use public amenities, including community centers and athletic fields.
While members of Baker’s administration pointed out that individual parks projects tend to benefit specific council member’s districts, Franklin said that was not the reason lawmakers felt an increase was necessary.
The department’s budgetary imbalance is something the county is obligated to address, he said.
“We thought that it made a lot more sense to do it this year because the longer you wait, the more expensive it is,” Franklin said. “We just didn’t think it was smart to put off the question of what to do.”