Among his first tasks, newly christened Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker recently announced some sobering news regarding the county’s budget in fiscal year 2012.

“There is very little revenue growth in 2012 and beyond,” Baker said. “The property tax assessment continues to decline. The income tax will grow at a rate of less than one percent due to the regional economic conditions. There’s additional expenditure pressure for 2012 for education, pension, healthcare and key program areas.”

Due to that, the county is looking at a deficit of at least $77 million. Baker says that number could rise to $105 million if the burden of teacher pensions is shifted from the state to counties. The Prince George’s delegation in Annapolis is still fighting on behalf of the county on that matter as they believe the shifting of the burden could bankrupt Maryland counties, especially Prince George’s.

“I feel like if the state is really focused on education then it should fully fund the teacher’s pension, so I cannot agree with that decision,” said Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, D.-Dist. 23.
Given the bleak figures, Baker and his financial analysts are going through every line of the budget to figure out where they can cut costs. That means the county hiring freeze will continue with the exception of sworn positions, and furloughs have not been ruled out for positions outside of education and public safety.

An assessment of the county government’s automobile and credit card policies for abuses will likely be another means of cost savings. Baker didn’t overtly comment on any situation, but after a recent Fox 5 report showed James Grier, former deputy director of the Office of Human Relations Commission, using a county-issued vehicle for personal business while he was supposed to be working, Baker acknowledged a need to take a look at everything.

“Clearly we want to be as efficient and as effective as possible,” Baker said. “Even if there were no allegations of abuse we’d want to look at everything.

“Certainly areas around credit cards and automobiles, which can easily be abused, we want to pay special attention to,” he continued.

To investigate this and other areas, Baker will also institute CountyStat – similar to CitiStat in Baltimore – to examine every agency within the county to see where money is being wasted or used improperly.

One of the agencies that will take precedence is the Department of Housing and Community Development. Baker announced that the county signed a $65,000 contract with Virginia Tech Center for Housing Research to do an external audit of the department due to concerns over its ethics and fiscal responsibility.

“The Department of Housing and Community Development is a vital agency that affects the livelihood of thousands of Prince George’s families and children. It is critically important to make sure that this department is performing efficiently and providing great service to the residents,” Baker said. “Since my first day in office, I have prioritized improving DHCD and look forward to the results and recommendations of this audit.”

Now that Baker is facing the reality of being the county’s leader, he’s already had to make tough decisions. He said he remains positive, though, that he can see the county through the tough period.

“The overriding goals for the fiscal year 2012 budget process will be a balanced budget that preserves our Triple-A bond rating, allocating monies to programs and services that are most important to the education of our children and the growth of the county’s economy,” he said.

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO