Prince George’s County has averted, at least for now, a money crisis that many officials feared would trickle down from Maryland’s budget woes.
As Prince George’s leaders tallied their victories and calculated their losses from this year’s legislative session in Annapolis, the county’s 127,000-student school system appeared to have been the greatest beneficiary.
During the General Assembly’s 90-day session, which ended at midnight Monday, the county school system won back about $14 million of a $20 million cut proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and obtained about $35 million for new construction.
The county government also emerged with much of its wish list intact, although it will have to shoulder new expenses totaling as much as $14 million that the state is pushing down to localities.
“Coming together, fighting hard, we did what people thought was impossible,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said at a morning news conference in Annapolis, pointing in particular to the money for schools.
In an interview, Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was pleased with the outcome but cautioned that fiscal challenges remain.
“I think they came through for us in a huge way,” he said of the county’s lawmakers. But the money from Annapolis is “not quite enough to really offset [cuts] that we have proposed in the budget. We are continuing to look for ways to do that,” he said.
And the county still faces a potential budget deficit next year that could top $100 million, making it likely that Baker and the county’s Annapolis delegation will be fighting anew in the next session for more aid.
Prince George’s housing values have dropped precipitously in the past few years, and property tax collections are down substantially as a result. Baker is also facing the possibility of 2 percent raises for at least five public employee unions — increases Baker says the county cannot afford. The contracts with the union were negotiated by Baker’s predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and left for Baker to finalize. Johnson also left Baker a $77 million budget gap.
Officials said the county received a total of about $985 million from the state, including winning back about $28 million of $30 million in cuts proposed by O’Malley.
On the plus side of the Prince George’s ledger:
lThe county won $3 million to help keep Rosecroft Raceway in Fort Washington afloat while it emerges from bankruptcy protection.
lThe county won a reprieve from a $2.9 million debt to the state for its costs in building roads around FedEx Field in Landover.
lPrince George’s Hospital Center will get $4 million to spruce up its facilities and $15 million to help keep it operating while officials look for a long-term solution to its financial problems.
lThe county will receive $10 million to help build a road for Konterra, a mixed-use development near Laurel that Baker said would rival Tysons Corner.
The General Assembly also approved ethics measures, sought by Baker, restricting the council’s ability to delay development proposals and limiting council mem bers’ authority to vote for developments if the council members are on a political slate that received campaign funds from the developer.
On the minus side, Baker’s budget director, Thomas Himler, said that the schools will pay $2.3 million in administrative fees for teacher pensions and that the county will pay $4.5 million for the state property tax assessor’s office. “Overall, it is a net positive to the county of about $14.6 million,” Himler said Tuesday afternoon in a briefing to the County Council.
And next year could be more challenging. Some school funds this year are from reworked state formulas, as well as a tax increase on alcohol, and are aimed at helping Baltimore and Prince George’s schools for a year. Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), a former delegate who often saw lawmakers in Annapolis offer short-term solutions to long-term problems, was troubled.
“Here we go again,” Patterson said. “I think that is bad.”