Bad Budget News Should Bring Positive Action in Prince George’s, Not Groveling for Crumbs

A report on Prince George's County's long-term budget problems should bring innovative change, not the same old threats of service cuts unless taxes are raised.

/By Woody Woodruff<>PM BlogSpace Report/ A citizen commission pretty much designed to bring bad news about Prince George’s County’s budget future meets for a public hearing Thursday night (Sept. 29), with activists concerned it is intended to provide cover for proposals increasing property taxes. Though citizens have every right to want to get more democratic control of their government, their public reach, simply tying down public provision with arbitrary tax caps is a blunt instrument that substitutes for an engaged public.

When Rushern Baker delivered his 2017 budget proposal in March he exulted that he had the smallest gap between proposed spending and revenues -- $64 million – in all his five years as county executive. At the end of May, the County Council – having closed that gap with mostly minor tweaks and few screams of pain from constituents – passed the budget. But Baker’s budget proposal had emerged, ironically, at roughly the same time in March as a much more foreboding document, the preliminary report of a citizen commission on the county’s structural budget gap.

Yes, Prince George’s also has a structural budget gap – a built-in chasm between revenues and costs. The County Council a year or so ago set up a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Addressing the [county’s] Structural Deficit.” In its March report, the level of the county’s dependence on outside money from the state government was startling – part of a “dire scenario” of an increasing gap between revenues and expenditures that could be exploded into crisis by any significant future reduction in the $1.2 billion the state provided this year. Prince George’s is “far more reliant on outside aid than [other] comparable counties.”  Only the happy news that the state was not, after all, experiencing an actual revenue shortfall deferred this potential bomb-toss into local county budgets, which had made the first years of Baker’s tenure in the midst of the national financial crisis so grueling. More recently, state revenues are falling below projections, however, so the perils of outside revenue dependence will probably sharpen.

The Blue Ribbon Commission meets Thursday night (Sept. 29) and will hold a public hearing on the findings it will present – after several requested postponements of an original summer deadline – next month. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s preliminary findings included that county revenues have been “lagging” for years, and the per capita income tax collected in Prince George’s in particular is startlingly low among the state’s counties, “demonstrat[ing] that the County is not as wealthy as it may appear” despite the pride demonstrated among county leaders about the high incomes in Mitchellville and Woodmoor.

And Prince George’s has been hampered in its revenue plans by TRIM, or Tax Reform Initiative for Marylanders, a tax cap on property tax rates that provides little flexibility in revenue raising. The Commission’s discussions have included amending the tax cap, which would require a charter change put to the ballot. A draft table of possible revenue moves also includes service cuts, “organizational efficiencies” that could bring county employee layoffs, reduction in the county’s legal obligation to fund schools at last year’s level or better (“Maintenance of Effort,”), cutting homestead tax exemptions and sales tax exemptions for nonprofits, reduction in county services and using vacant county land to build revenue-producing improvements.

Most of the proposals follow time-honored patterns of imposing burdens on the least empowered constituencies but not, for instance, seeking more income tax revenue options through state legislation (which would impact the Councilmembers’ peers in the county’s affluent communities outside the Beltway). Only the proposal that the county “become landlord and mortgage holder) on existing vacant or underused property shows the kind of imagination that might lift Prince George’s out of its subordinate position, a county dependent on investors – who mostly don’t look like the residents – from outside the county. Empowering the county’s citizens could best be accomplished by empowering the county’s public reach, creating jobs through publicly designed enterprise instead of begging for them; enabling the development of worker-owned enterprises in parallel instead of groveling for bosses.

Instead of lusting after outside money, the county could take advantage of internal opportunities like, for instance, remanufacturing from recycled materials, instead of depending on the shaky and volatile market for exported recyclables.  Support for worker-owned coop enterprises and nonprofits could create great jobs and reduce commutes for those who have to seek jobs outside the county, plus engaging citizens who are alienated from local government by its recent history of corruption and criminal behavior. The county’s Economic Development Corporation could put some of its kitty into developing renewable-energy industries, matching state money for green jobs vetoed by Hogan in May but likely to be overridden next session.

Instead, the county’s development mechanism, including a frequently compliant Planning Board, continues to welcome discount retailers like Walmart despite citizen protests that “Prince George’s Deserves Better.” What Prince George’s deserves is not the Nordstrom’s that Mitchellville residents swoon for but enterprise developed from within Prince George’s as a collaboration between workers’ know-how and a local government that has learned how to ease the path to democratic development and the sustainable prosperity it would mean.