UPPER MARLBORO – After two months of deliberation and two hours past the scheduled meeting time, the Prince George’s County Council voted to adopt a budget that scraps County Executive Rushern Baker III’s proposal but still raises taxes. In a 6-3 decision, the County Council voted to adopt a $3.5 billion total budget for fiscal […]
UPPER MARLBORO – After two months of deliberation and two hours past the scheduled meeting time, the Prince George’s County Council voted to adopt a budget that scraps County Executive Rushern Baker III’s proposal but still raises taxes.
In a 6-3 decision, the County Council voted to adopt a $3.5 billion total budget for fiscal year 2016, which include a 4 percent increase in property taxes and a 1 percent increase in the telecommunications in order to fund what Council Chairman Mel Franklin called “unfunded mandates” from the state for teacher pension costs. Councilmembers Mary Lehman, Obie Patterson and Karen Toles gave the dissenting votes.
The Council’s adopted budget provides $34 million to the school system—73 percent less than Baker’s original proposal to raise property taxes by 15 percent to provide $133 million to the school system, a proposal that drew criticism from residents across the county but drew praise from county teachers’ union and even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A day before adoption, Baker offered a compromise—to raise taxes by 7 percent and provide $65 million to the school system.
“While we support many of the concepts in the school system’s strategic plan, we have collectively determined that both the County Executive’s initial proposed 15.6 percent tax increase and yesterday’s revised seven percent tax increase proposal are not affordable for county tax payers,” Franklin said.
Now that the council has made their decision not to fully grant PGCPS’s budget request, Baker said, he must decide what his next action will be. He can either approve the Council’s adopted budget or veto it, he said, and pursuant to the county charter he has 10 days to make his decision.
“I think the school system needs (the money). We really need the $133 million. We asked for the $65 million and we did not get that. That is disappointing,” Baker said.
The county has improved overall, Baker said, but education has continued to remain stagnant. The goal for the county should be to prove that they can fund the school system themselves.
“It makes no sense for us to be at the bottom. We wanted to show the state that we can pull ourselves up,” Baker said. “We wanted to show that we can do what Montgomery County, Howard County and Baltimore County are doing in terms of investing in our school system. It’s a shame that our council did not see that.”
The council came up with its four percent tax figure over the last couple of days before the adoption of the budget, Franklin said. Traditionally, he said, the council has most of its discussions in the public eye, but the final decision on the budget can come down to conversations and negotiations in private between the council and the county administration.
“As you can imagine a lot of these conversations have happened in the last couple of days to come to a determination,” Franklin said. “So that did happen in the last couple of days.”
Councilwoman Mary Lehman said while not all meetings happened in public, the the council made sure they did not violate the Open Meetings Act because no more than four members of the council met to discuss the budget at once. The issues they did discuss were the same issues that were talked about in public, she said, and they had plenty of public interaction with citizens.
“I think we all got a record number of phone calls and emails in the hundreds on this. We were engaging those people one on one, out in public in meetings, on the street, in church or wherever,” Lehman said.
The school system did not clearly make their case to the citizens of the county that education needed to be funded more, Lehman said, and there were still concerns about transparency and accountability within the public.
Judy Robinson, a retired county employee and a local activist, said the county should have had more conversations in the public eye and anything about the budget outside the view of the public is “a betrayal,” to the citizens.
“Mr. Franklin knows that every meeting is supposed to be done in front of the public. There are ways they can get around that by having fewer people at one time, but there are few limited categories that shouldn’t be in front of the public,” Robinson said. “I’ve asked myself that question. Why are thy not there on time or where they are supposed to be? This is another bit of government saying ‘we have these rules you have to follow but we do not’.”
Councilwoman Andrea Harrison said her decision to vote against the budget was one of the most difficult decisions she has had to make as an elected official, and that this budget caused more tension and division than any other budget she has seen.
The council did not take the budget lightly, she said, because it is imperative to the livelihood of the constituents they serve living in the county. And even though they met outside of the public eye, she said, the council did not act “in the dark” without letting citizens know what was going on.
“You have to have conversations that are not going to be in public and they are never going to be in public so don’t expect them to be in public,” Harrison said. “It’s not going to happen. That’s the way this works. We were entrusted to make decisions and that’s what we have to do. We have to think about the residents.”
A lack of transparency, Robinson said, is a large reason why people do not respect the county’s government anymore because people cannot trust what they do not see.
The Baker administration failed to engage the citizens of the county on the front end of his proposal early enough, Franklin said, and that did not help them gain approval from residents or provide enough time to come up with other thorough solutions for improvement.
“Anytime you talk about raising taxes, it is going to elicit significant emotional response. So if residents haven’t been engaged on the plan or the cost it is going to be a problem,” Franklin said. “The strategic plan is an impressive plan. But if residents aren’t sold on the cost it is not something we can move forward with.”
Toles and Lehman both voted against the budget because of what they deemed a lack of transparency from the school system.
As part of the adoption, the council announced it will introduce a resolution to have an independent auditor perform a performance audit on the school system. The purpose of the audit, Franklin said, is to find out where the biggest areas of improvement are. From there, he said, the school system can make decisions on what needs to be fixed.
The audit has been put out to bid for a request for proposal, Franklin said. After an auditor is selected, they will take a thorough look at the school systems operations and release a report on the results of the audit in the summer of 2016. The audit will continue throughout each year Councilman Derrick Leon Davis said, and act as a “process” promoting more accountability for the school system.
Although the council cannot tell the school system how to spend its money, Franklin said, the audit will create more accountability and transparency, he said.
Before making a decision to further fund the school system, Toles said, the school system has to be able to show more signs of improvement and be held accountable. Toles said she is dissatisfied with the attention her community has received in the past and that is why she could not support the budget.
“I look forward to the audit. We’ll go from there and try to work through what needs to be funded over the next year or so,” Toles said. “I have some concerns about where some of our neighborhoods are going with economic development rather than the school system. So we just want to continue to have those conversations over the next year.”
PGCPS CEO Kevin Maxwell said he was disappointed Council’s decisions, which could have “lasting impacts” on the future of Prince George’s County.
“We are extremely disappointed at the level of funding this budget provides,” Maxwell said. “When it comes to our children, we desperately need officials with conviction and the political will to lead rather than follow so as to create a better tomorrow.”
Franklin said the council placed an emphasis on fiscal responsibility and accountability. The state passed an unfunded mandate in 2012, he said, requiring jurisdictions to fund a significant burden of state teacher pension costs. The unfunded mandate serves as the basis for raising revenue for public education, Franklin said.
Raising taxes is not the desire of the council, Franklin said, but the state forced the county to take action. “Unfunded mandates at the state create higher costs here at home,” Franklin said.
As well as granting funding to cover teacher pensions, the council also passed legislation mandating 50 percent of the revenues from the MGM Casino coming to the National Harbor goes to PGCPS, Toles said. The council also created a “Blue Ribbon” commission in an effort to aid the county in getting out of the structural deficit they are currently in.
The county is initiating a spending control measure in this year’s budget, Franklin said, placing two percent of each agency’s budget, including their own, as well as $6 million of the overtime budget into a contingency fund. That money will be set aside for potential distribution later in the fiscal year, Franklin said, based on how the county is managing budget expenses.
“Our spending has exceeded our revenue for quite some time and this ongoing structural deficit must be addressed,” Franklin said. “The council is presenting a resolution that would establish a Blue Ribbon commission on addressing Prince George’s County’s structural deficit.”