In Pr. George’s, budget shortfall could delay hiring for police, firefighters
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has proposed delaying the hiring of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers after a gloomy housing market led to a deeper-than-expected drop in tax collections.
Prompted by a $5.4 million shortfall, the proposal would postpone by at least two or three months the hiring of 165 police officers, 60 firefighters and 32 corrections officers, officials said.
Baker (D), who took office in December, is also seeking to scale back snow removal contracts and to eliminate funding for a popular tree- and flower-planting event.
If the local economy worsens, which Baker administration officials think it will, there could be more bad fiscal news ahead.
So on Monday, Baker’s office began circulating a list of prospective cuts that is far more drastic and that is aimed, at least in part, at persuading the County Council to drop a previously negotiated raise for 450 unionized employees.
The cost-of-living increase, which was negotiated by Baker’s predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), would cost the county $1.2 million annually. A public hearing on the contract is scheduled Wednesday evening in Upper Marlboro, and it is up to the County Council to decide whether to approve it.
Baker said that if the council approves the raise, the ripple effect would be a much bigger problem. Inevitably, the raise for some employees would lead to a pay increase for the other 5,500 county workers, Baker said. That would up the cost to about $12 million a year, Baker’s staff estimates, and that would strain the county’s spare $2.6 billion budget.
With an across-the-board cost-of-living increase, Baker would have to make deeper cuts in public safety and public schools, he said, and those would backfire on the county’s efforts to attract businesses and expand the commercial tax base.
The doomsday list circulated Monday detailed a number of the possible cuts.
In public safety, instead of delaying the hiring of more than 250 police officers, firefighters and corrections officers , the administration would cut the positions.
In education, a number of reductions would be made:
l Cut $1.3 million from the county’s contribution to the public schools, which totals about $613 million, and $1 million from the county’s $29 million contribution to Prince George’s Community College.
l Eliminate $105,700 for school-based mental health services.
l Compel the schools to pay for their security rather than using county police, saving $204,500.
Baker said he has nowhere to turn for more revenue to pay for raises.
He said it would hurt the county’s credibility if it were the only jurisdiction in the Washington area giving pay raises at a time when the county has sought extra funds from the state. Most local governments have frozen pay, and some, including the state, are insisting on unpaid days off for employees, something Prince George’s has done in previous years but is avoiding this year, he said.
Although the council has been divided on the pay raises, the list of cuts is troubling to council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), who said she will oppose the cost-of-living raises, known as COLAs.
“I agree that we can’t afford the COLAs,” Turner said.
She said the council would scrutinize the details of the latest proposed cuts before voting May 26 on the final budget plan. It will take effect July 1.
CJ Ross, the negotiator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the employees whose contract is up for a vote, said workers are already compensating for the dozens of job vacancies. Further cuts would backfire, she said.
“If [Baker] is cutting our employees, he is cutting services directly to the citizens . . . and will have to pay subcontractors to do the work,” she said.
The immediate $5.4 million shortfall is a combination of less-than-anticipated collections in real estate transaction taxes, which in the first three months of the year were down 6.3 percent. The county also must shoulder $4.46 million in new costs transferred to the counties from the state government to pay for the property assessor’s office.
But the county also picked up some new money from the General Assembly, much of it aimed at the schools, which helped limit the reductions to $5.4 million.