- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2015

The battle over the Prince George’s County budget has ended in a cease-fire.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III announced he will not pursue legal action against County Council members who rejected his tax hike proposal saying that, while he would still be in the right to do so, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the county.

“We ventured into unchartered territory during this budget process and I have determined that pursuing legal action regarding this matter would lead to litigation that would be detrimental to the long-term interests of Prince George’s County government, our employees and the citizens we serve,” Mr. Baker said in an announcement late Friday.

The Prince George’s County Council voted Tuesday to override Mr. Baker’s veto of their budget proposal, which scaled back increases in the county’s property tax. But the threat of a high-stakes budget showdown loomed large over lawmakers as Mr. Baker entertained the possibility of filing a lawsuit, saying their decision violated the county charter.

The decision to hold off on a lawsuit means county residents will still see their first property tax increase in nearly four decades — but the hike won’t be as much as initially expected.

Under the County Council’s $3.54 billion plan, property taxes will increase 4 cents — from 96 cents to $1.00 per $100 of assessed value. The budget will generate an extra $34 million for the Prince George’s County Public Schools. Mr. Baker initially suggested a 15 cent hike that would have raised $133 million for the schools and later proposed an 11 cent hike as a compromise.

Under a voter-approved tax cap adopted in 1978, lawmakers are banned from increasing the county’s property tax rate. Mr. Baker circumvented the cap, pointing to a little-known state law adopted in 2012 that allowed for rates to be raised if the funding was restricted to local school system budgets.

Mr. Baker, a longtime education advocate, argued the poorly performing Prince George’s County Public School system could only improve with an extra infusion of cash.

But residents were skeptical of the promise that the funding would help to elevate the school system, which ranks 23rd out of 24 school districts in Maryland.

“I think a lot of people see the money being spent in ways that aren’t useful,” said former County Council member Tom Dernoga. “That’s why the skepticism.”

To council members, Mr. Baker’s threat to sue represented potential peril to economic development that county is still trying to nurture. County Council Chairman Mel Franklin said such instability could jeopardize future projects like the county’s bid to house the next FBI headquarters or build a new medical center.

On Friday, Mr. Franklin thanked the county executive for backing off his threat.

“The county executive challenged us all to confront the very real urgency to invest in our public schools and our county’s future,” Mr. Franklin said in a statement. “We look forward to working together as one county government on behalf of our nearly 900,000 residents, to transform Prince George’s County into an economic destination for the world and fulfill our near limitless potential.”

M.H. Jim Estepp, president and CEO of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, was supportive of Mr. Baker’s initial plan and had hoped ahead of the Friday’s announcement that the two sides would have been able to negotiate.

“There is always too high a price to pay for most things,” he said of the possibility the budget wound up a court dispute.

But at the end of the day, he reiterated that the real problem is in how the county will improve its schools system.

“One of the remaining problems that we had that prohibits a lot for business from wanting to locate here is the perception of the school system, both perception and performance of the school system,” he said. 

“If we don’t fix the school system, we are going to do the damage to ourselves.”

 

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