UPPER MARLBORO – Despite two months of fervent discussion and reaction from county residents, members of the Prince George’s County Council remain undecided about whether or not they will approve County Executive Rushern Baker III’s budget proposal.
The council held its final public hearing at the County Administration Building on Monday night—the last opportunity for residents to let the Council know what they think about the proposed $3.6 billion budget, which includes fully funding the school system’s $1.93 billion budget request.
To fund the county’s $133 million contribution, Baker has proposed proposed raising the real property tax rate from $.96 per $100 to $1.11 per $100 of assessed value. The proposal also raises the county’s personal property tax rate from $2.40 to $2.78 per $100 of assessed value. Telecommunication taxes will be raised from 8 percent to 12 percent on top of those increases.
The tax increases are causing emotions to run high, said Council Vice Chair Derrick Leon Davis.
“Anytime you talk about taxes, people’s emotions and sentiments run up. And then, when you talk about education the same happens. The sentiment for raising taxes is, ‘Hell no,’ in most situations,” Davis said. “Is the county executive’s current proposal the best and final proposal? I would say no.”
Prince George’s County Public School’s CEO Kevin Maxwell has requested the funding to support the school system’s strategic plan and goal of getting into the state’s top 10 by 2020. Davis said no one is going to say no to education improvement, Davis said, but he is not sure Maxwell’s approach is the right one.
“That’s what their objective is. Is it right? I’m not sure. I’m not sure at this point,” Davis said. “But we know what it takes to improve learning. We know that improvement costs money.”
The increased spending would result in $639,000 going to every school, Davis, said, but the council wants to ensure all of the funding is used for education and not other purposes.
While Davis could not confirm which way he would vote at this time, other council members have signaled they will vote against the budget as proposed by Baker. Councilwoman Karen Toles questioned PGCPS officials at a recent budget worksession, and said Maxwell’s decision to leave the worksession early upset her.
“I’m more troubled by your boss leaving because it shows the council doesn’t get respect,” Toles said at the worksession. “I’m not the one asking for $1.9 billion – he is. And that just, really, it increases my no even further.”
In addition to Toles, Councilwoman Mary Lehman said she cannot support the proposed budget as currently constructed. The rest of the county and the citizens did not have enough input in the process leading up to the release of the proposed budget, she said.
“Mr. Baker could’ve begun this conversation six months or a year ago and built a case for it,” Lehman said. “Instead he came out of nowhere with it. He did not try to build any consensus. He just sort of lobbed this grenade, of sorts.”
Lehman said school funding is not controversial on its face, but providing funding by circumventing the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM) creates skepticism from residents. TRIM is a tax cap in the county’s charter mandating that any proposed property tax increase be approved by a citizen vote.
Baker has proposed using what many residents have called a “loophole” in the law which allows districts to increase taxes above the tax cap in order to meet maintenance of effort (MOE) funding requirements for the school system. But Baker is going “above and beyond,” Lehman said, what is required for the county’s MOE funding to reform the school system.
Some of the things in the strategic plan are feasible and necessary, Lehman said, like giving students access to literacy coaches. But there are some inappropriate “one-time” expenses, Lehman said, that need to be taken out of the budget.
“You never, never lump one-time expenses with tax increases. Tax increases are forever. One-time expenses are one-time expenses,” Lehman said. “You find some other way because they are a one-time expense. You find a grant or something for that.”
An example of a one-time expense, Lehman said, are the iPads the school system is providing for students and school renovations.
“You don’t put renovations in with tax increases. That is irresponsible,” Lehman said.
Taxes have risen enough for residents, Lehman said, and the school system already receives more than half of the county’s budget.
“When you talk about $.64 on the dollar, my goodness, how much is enough?” Lehman said. “I don’t know. I’m not pretending I do. But certainly the sky cannot be the limit.”
Councilwoman Danielle Glaros said she is still on the fence and is not leaning one way or another on the proposed budget.
“We want to make sure that we continue to invest in education in a way that we make sure we are fiscally sustainable into the future,” Glaros said. “We are looking very closely at the proposal and looking very closely at what we can do as a county to move forward in education.”
The proposal is very broad, Glaros said, and she wants to make sure it supports the schools and teachers, but the challenge is making that happen with limited resources.
Toles has previously said she would like to “continue the conversation” with Maxwell to find out where the funding will specifically go and how it will be used.
“These are also budgets that we don’t really control once we give the money, Toles said. “They can say what they are going to do with the money, but we have to make sure that we stay the course and we have these conversations because this is an unprecedented amount of money.”
Board of Education member Edward Burroughs said he admires what the county executive is trying to do with his proposed budget but families around the county are hurting already and struggling to keep their homes.
“Of course I love the school system. I’m a product of the school system, but it’s important that I share reality. And that reality is that people are struggling,” said Burroughs, who voted to support Maxwell’s budget request and the school system’s strategic plan. “Every week I get calls from families and parents who are crying because they have to live with having their child displaced due to foreclosures.”
Melody Spruill, a Bowie resident who attended Monday night’s public hearing, said she does not know if she is for or against the strategic plan. Spruill said she polled residents in her neighborhood and her family and found most people were in opposition of the tax increases.
The council is in a difficult position with a decision to make, Spruill said, not just for the school system and the children, but for the community in general.
“Unfortunately, you all don’t only represent children. You represent the community as a whole and you have to make that decision as a whole,” Spruill said. “I am not saying I am for or against it, but I am saying that we have a protocol. I would like for you all to take it to the ballot for people to decide.”