UPPER MARLBORO – The Blue Ribbon Commission has made its recommendations on how to help the county’s long-term budget books go from the red to the black. On Jan. 10, members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Addressing Prince George’s County Structural Deficit briefed the county council on its final report, which details the commission’s […]
UPPER MARLBORO – The Blue Ribbon Commission has made its recommendations on how to help the county’s long-term budget books go from the red to the black.
On Jan. 10, members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Addressing Prince George’s County Structural Deficit briefed the county council on its final report, which details the commission’s understanding of the budgetary issues facing the county and what it recommends be done to fix them.
The recommendations deal with both increasing government revenue and trimming costs in an effort to close the budget gap, which is projected as high as $250 million by fiscal year 2022 if no changes are made.
“What we decided, based on our findings, is to package our recommendations in a way that sort of looks at, well, what are the primary pieces that, if there was greater flexibility, if the county had greater nimbleness, greater agility, to adjust and to account for things, that we would be able to resolve this structural deficit,” said Earl Adams, Jr., chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission.
On the revenue side, the report presents a variety of options, including greater scrutiny in the use of tax incentives for development projects and encouraging more commercial development in the county. For example, by giving priority to commercial developments over stand-alone residential projects and working to change policies so that, as Adams said, “the government gets out of the way and allows for these projects to go on.”
The way the council awards incentives like TIF (Tax Increment Financing) and PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) agreements to developers should be revisited, the report said. The council already has a checklist to follow in deciding whether to approve those agreements, and Adams said they should revisit how it is used – potentially by turning it into a scoring system for greater transparency – and give themselves more time to evaluate each proposal, which he said often come to the council’s attention at the last minute.
“We’re not casting aspersions, but if that’s how it happens, there isn’t a full vetting of the proposals. And all of these TIFs and PILOTs, they have long term impacts and so they need to be properly vetted prior to them being awarded,” Adams said.
While those measures will help increase revenues, Adams said the commission agreed the county’s ability to address the deficits was hampered by restrictions on its ability to raise additional revenue the way other jurisdictions can. He said that is “not a sound and effective way for government to work” and in all of their discussions, the commission “could not avoid” recommending changes to county tax structures. The report recommends the repeal of TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), which caps real property taxes in the county and limits the percentage of the property’s value that can be taxed, as well as the repeal of Question I – a referendum from 1996 that requires tax or fee increases be approved by county voters.
Both of those measures were approved by county voters. In 1992, voters narrowly disapproved a measure to change Prince George’s County’s homestead tax credit. Adams said that decision has meant a loss of about $117 million in county revenues over the last four years alone. The Blue Ribbon Commission report recommends revisiting this issue as well.
Residents at the commission’s public hearings had expressed opposition to changing any of those three policies. Adams said the commission believes that opposition stems from a lack of trust in the county government and how it uses taxpayer money, and so the commission recommended the council look at ways to increase transparency before moving forward with any taxing changes.
“Before you all would consider going down a path of repealing or looking at any of these issues, we believe there needs to be a serious public discussion in order to try to increase the trust the public has in our public institutions,” Adams said. “We believe by starting these harder conversations by focusing on public ethics and integrity – it may not solve the problem, but it will definitely help create an atmosphere where we can have a robust discussion on these topics.”
Potential ways to improve transparency as mentioned in the report included more attention to the county’s waste and fraud division and renewed discussions on creating an independent inspector general for Prince George’s County.
Adams also said the commission found the county is doing some good things, such as redesigning the website to make access to information easier and running a successful audits office. But residents need to be aware of those things, he said, for trust to be built.
“What we found, and we got this from our public sessions, is that county residents just don’t know that information is there. And we took the position that, frankly, the burden is on government to make residents aware,” Adams said.
County Council Chair Derrick Davis said there is disagreement even among councilmembers over how easy, or not, it is to get information about the government.
“In every discussion around the word transparency, you find people with different views,” he said. “Providing information and ensuring we answer questions is the charge for us as government. I really applaud every effort we make as government to make information available on the web and attempt to be timely. But we can always do more.”
Councilwoman Andrea Harrison said outreach to citizens shouldn’t just be digital-based, because not all residents have the access or know-how to use those resources.
“What I don’t want is for there to be some level of non-compassion for those individuals who don’t have access, who don’t know how to utilize the services but still have needs. That means that, if we’re going to do this, and get that information out there, there also still has to be a U.S. Postal Service mailing,” she said.
Transparency also played into the discussions surrounding the cost-saving measures recommended in the report. They include savings from personnel costs, more widespread use of public-private partnerships (P3s) that would allow the “county (to) receive services but not on our balance books,” and more marketing and use of a county program already in existence that allows county employees to make recommendations on cutting costs, Adams said.
Adams said the report does not recommend cutting county pensions or reducing the county workforce, which is already much lower than neighboring jurisdictions. Davis said that was something that struck him among the report’s findings.
“One of the things that stood out was the talk of how there is a disparity in the number of people who provide the services in Prince George’s County versus other jurisdictions,” he said. “We do a whole lot with very little.”
Davis said now that the report has been received, the council will study it more thoroughly before deciding which recommendations to act on. But he said discussions on transparency would continue, and council committees would begin to discuss the county’s procurement process. He also said he hopes to have public information sessions with commission members to explain their findings to county residents.
“This is a long-term process. This is all about structure. This is making it so that Prince George’s County can survive a recession, and has the flexibility to continue to provide the vital services for the citizens of Prince George’s County,” he said. “I don’t believe in doing a report and having it sit on a shelf.”