UPPER MARLBORO – The Prince George’s County Council is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to domestic violence, litter and housing but is reining in the purse strings on education.
The council voted 8-0 to adopt the 2017 county budget of $3.7 billion and the 2017-2022 capital improvements program (CIP) at a hearing on May 26. In total, the council increased appropriations by $16.75 million over County Executive Rushern Baker III’s proposal, but the budget remains balanced because the council determined they had “a little teeny bit more money” to work with from increased property values, new home sales and MGM revenues, according to Council Chair Derrick Davis.
Councilman Obie Patterson added that $4.5 million from MGM was not included in this budget but will be appropriated later in the local impact area after public hearings.
The budget includes an additional $1.5 million for domestic violence prevention and support programs to complement the $1 million Baker set aside for that purpose. However, the council also voted to allocate fewer funds than proposed for education - one of Baker’s top priorities- by $2.5 million. The council’s budget materials explain the reduced appropriation for fixed charges by $2.5 million will be made up with MGM gaming revenues, which are obviously not expected until after the casino opens later this year.
Baker expressed his confidence in the council’s leadership in a statement, saying, “I want to personally thank Chairman Davis and Vice Chair (Dannielle) Glaros for their leadership during this year’s budget process. The collaborative spirit shown by their leadership, along with the other members of the county council, was clearly evident.”
Davis said even with the cut, the board of education still receives more than 60 percent of all county revenues and exceeds the state-mandated Maintenance of Effort funding level by $21 million. The total amount allocated to schools is approximately $1.92 billion.
That is quite a bit less than the $2 billion budget proposed by Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell and represents an even further reduction than the amount proposed by the county executive.
At the board of education meeting earlier in the week, Maxwell had said PGCPS administration was anticipating the cuts after attending numerous meetings with the council, but said balancing the budget would still be a challenge.
“It’s certainly challenging in that we didn’t get what we requested to begin with and now it’s $2.5 million less, but I do understand the position that the county government and the county council is in. There isn’t enough resources right now to meet everybody’s request and everybody’s need,” he said.
Maxwell said that at the end of the process, PGCPS is required by law to balance the budget and he is confident they will, but not without “pain and lessening what we will deliver.” However, Maxwell said he understands that the public library system and community college are also pulling from the same budget and the school system works with both to improve education and offerings to students.
“We will do our absolute best with the resources that we have and we continue to work tirelessly to improve the educational outcomes for our children,” he said. “I do believe that we need to talk about how we accomplish what everyone would like us to accomplish and what we would like to accomplish and with the resources that we currently have we’re just not able to provide all of the all-day pre-k that we would like to offer. We’re not able to provide all of the literacy coaches that we’d like to. We’re not able to compensate our employees as we’d like to.”
If the county wants excellence in education, Maxwell said, they’re going to have to pay for it.
The other major announcement out of the budget vote was the $1.5 million increase to several county agencies designed to better combat domestic violence.
Davis said the council felt that investments in public safety alone weren’t enough to stop domestic violence, which has been the cause of several high-profile cases recently. He said the additional investment will serve to bolster the other services that can help victims.
“It’s just a harrowing reality, and we all know that. You’re punched in the gut every time someone is put into that situation,” he said. “We felt strongly that as opposed to continuing our investment on the back end, which is the courts, typically the police and the sheriff- we needed to start some coordination to help families on the front end.”
The additional funding will be divided among various county agencies (the county council’s office and the departments of family services and social services) and used for grants to nonprofits who address domestic violence, as well as other programs. A domestic violence shelter was also added back into the CIP for central services. The goal is to create more support services and safe houses for families who are dealing with domestic violence, with an emphasis on collaboration between agencies.
“The view, I think, from the council is that we need to utilize this money to push those agencies to work together, the nonprofits to work together, to come up with a comprehensive strategy about domestic violence,” councilman Mel Franklin said.
Councilwoman Karen Toles said those services make up a safety net, which is vitally important but often the first to be cut in hard fiscal times.
“We hear that everywhere we go, that the safety net is the first to get cut and you can never invest enough in the safety net,” she said.
Glaros said the additional $1.5 million was only the beginning of the process of examining ways the council could address the issue.
“Historically, we have been underfunding what we need to be doing in family services and social services and our health department. This is, I would say, a drop in the bucket of what we ultimately need to be doing,” she said. “So I think you’ll hear us, you’ll see us talk about what we need to continue to do.”
Councilman Todd Turner said another issue the council will be spending time on is developing a comprehensive housing strategy. The council added $300,000 to the operating expense budget of the department of housing and community development to facilitate this process.
Turner also brought up the issue of litter removal. The approved budget increases funding for the department of public works by $1 million to pay for litter clean-up initiatives. Council members agreed that this was the issue they got the most complaints about from constituents.
“The litter and the road improvements, the curb and sidewalk safety, that was probably the easiest one. That was the one that jumped out at everyone. This investment is really about the quality of life,” Davis said.
Other budget changes include an additional $310,000 to the community relations office to support the Human Relations Commission for Human Trafficking and new 3-1-1 call-takers; $2.1 million to the IT internal service fund for deficit reduction; $1.01 million more for the department of social services for more homeless services and to expand the Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative in schools program to nine more schools; and $91,300 to the circuit court to accommodate an additional judge.
The budget will take effect July 1, 2016, unless the county executive makes further changes. Council staff said they did not anticipate this happening, however.