Nonprofits ask Baker to continue aid despite lean economic forecast

Prince George's County is facing a projected $117.4 million deficit in FY16, Baker says at budget hearing

Requests for aid to nonprofits and other service providers was the theme Thursday night during Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III's second and final budget hearing, held at Laurel High School. 

Many groups said they were struggling to provide services to the community due to tough economic conditions and a decrease in state aid, as Maryland tries to shore up a $1.2 billion deficit. 

Prince George's County has a $40 million budget gap of its own to close before this fiscal year ends June 30. Looking ahead to fiscal year 2016, the county's budget office is already predicting a $117.4 million shortfall, as increasing expenses continue to outpace revenue growth.

"There are some really hard choices we're going to have to make" to balance the budget, Baker said before opening the floor at the hearing, an opportunity for any resident to make budget requests. "That's why your input is so critical." 

Several Laurel groups were among those asking for funding consideration. 

Volunteers for Laurel's winter shelter for the homeless asked Baker for $50,000 to help cover the shelter's general operating expenses. 

According to Leah Paley, who helps coordinate the shelter as the deputy director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, said the shelter, which rotates among local congregations during the winter months, "fills an important need" as the only shelter within walking distance of Laurel. 

Still, it can be difficult to ensure the shelter finds a new sponsor every week. "This current shelter season, volunteers have scrambled to find a space for the first two weeks of March," Paley said. Though they were able to lock down a place, it can only sponsor 20 men out of the usual 30 who use the shelter, she said. 

Jenny Wall, a parishioner at St. Philip's Episcopal Church who sits on the LARS board and has helped with the shelter program for more than two decades, said county aid would help the program continue. 

"The congregations have been carrying this since [1991] and I think it's time to talk about the county stepping in to help," Wall said. 

Joe Fisher, founder of First Generation College Bound, a nonprofit that started in Laurel and has grown to offer mentoring and college preparation services throughout Prince George's County, asked Baker for support as he looks forward to a potential state grant. 

Del. Alonzo Washington, a Prince George's Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would create a college access pilot program for low-income students. If it's funded, First Generation College Bound would need the county's help to provide matching funds for the grant, Fisher said. 

He pointed to the organization's success in the past year: 168 students in the program received higher education scholarships totaling $2.5 million, 44 students earned an associate's or bachelor's degree, three received master's degrees and one got his Ph.D.

"We have outstanding things going on in Prince George's County, even though we have our challenges," Fisher said. "But let me tell you, we have students that are doing great things."

Adrian Rousseau, the new president of the Laurel Boys and Girls Club, said the nonprofit is "facing a difficult time" and just had to let its one employee go because the club can no longer afford to pay his salary. The club has faced financial difficulties and allegations of corruption as recently as last summer, but Rousseau said its newly established board is focused on "tackling all the situations and everything that is going on with these kids throughout the county.

"We are in partnership in making a difference in this community," Rousseau told Baker. 

Other Laurel residents asked Baker to consider making some improvements to the community.

Barbara Sollner-Webb, the president of the West Laurel Civic Association, testified about the county's aging roadways. 

"The roads become more third-worldish each year as they fall into disrepair," Sollner-Webb, who was accompanied by half a dozen other members of the group, said. In Laurel, some of the worst examples are on Bond Mill Road and Sweitzer Lane, she added. 

Tom Dernoga, a former Prince George's County councilman and board member of the Friends of the Laurel Library, reminded Baker that Laurel is still waiting for construction on its new library to start. The project, which has been delayed by errors in the bidding process, was supposed to have broken ground last fall.

"There has been an interminable wait for a new library," Dernoga said. "The temporary site is a year old and appears to be getting a lot older." 

Other testimony Thursday night focused on funding of service providers for the developmentally disabled. Leaders from multiple organizations said they were struggling to keep up with a minimum wage increase mandated by the county, which currently sets base hourly wages at $8.40 and will rise to $9.55 an hour on Oct. 1. 

Several people also asked Baker to reinstate funding that allows local farmers' markets to accept food stamps and to provide benefits for contract employees at the county's animal shelter. 

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