County Executive Baker discusses budget priorities, challenges at Laurel hearing

Facing a projected $126 million deficit, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker said he will have to "make some tough choices" when preparing his budget for fiscal year 2013.

The county's projected deficit is calculated from a December 2011 budget forecast that estimates fiscal 2013 expenditures at slightly more than $2.7 billion, and revenues at slightly less than $2.6 billion.

"We have to have a zero balanced budget," Baker said. His options for eliminating the projected deficit are to find ways to raise revenue, reduce expenditures or a combination of the two.

To get input on where the county should spend its money and where it can afford to make cuts, Baker kicked off a series of public budget hearings at Laurel High School Thursday, Jan. 26. Only two people spoke at the hearing.

"I could take (the small turnout) as a compliment that we're doing a good job and people are happy," Baker said after the hearing, but noted there are two more hearings to come.

The two remaining hearings are scheduled for Feb. 1 at Harmony Hall and Feb. 7 at Prince George's Community College. Both hearings will be held at 7 p.m.

The two people to speak at the Laurel hearing were both library advocates.

Pat Behenna, vice president of the Friends of the Laurel Library, asked Baker to not cut funding for any of the county libraries.

"I'm not here to ask you to increase hugely the budget this coming year, but I am here to implore you not to cut another penny," she said.

In demonstrating libraries can't afford any more cuts, Behenna noted the library hours that have been cut in past years, several positions that have been frozen and employees not receiving salary increases.

She added: "We understand these are troubling times, and one of the ways we see it are people in the libraries applying for jobs."

Baker said Behenna is "absolutely right" in that the county has noticed "that a number of people looking for jobs are using our libraries." He said he values the libraries, but he will have to weigh all of the county's priorities when making his budget decisions.

The other person who spoke was Marsha Voigt, representing Friends of the Greenbelt Library. She also advocated against additional cuts to the library budget.

"Books and e-books need to be purchased, but since 2008 there's been a 17 percent cut in material spending," she said.

Education, public safety priorities

Understanding the budget needs to be trimmed to eliminate the projected deficit, Baker has asked all of the county department heads to identify 5 percent of their departmental budgets that can be cut.

"Education and public safety will be priorities," Baker said. "I will do everything to make sure that they're held harmless."

Noting that surrounding jurisdictions are giving teachers raises, Baker said, "If we want to be competitive in Prince George's County we have to make sure we fund our education system to the tune it should be funded."

One of the challenges the county faces in budgeting this year is an anticipated 2.5 percent decrease in revenues for fiscal 2013.

"Revenues are not keeping pace with the growth and our anticipated expenditures," said Terri Charles, acting director of the county's Office of Management and Budget.

Property tax is the county's main source of revenue, she said.

"We still have issues with our home prices in the county; they've dropped two years in a row," Charles said. "Another concern for the county is the fact that our foreclosure events still remain a big issue."

Despite limited resources, Charles said the county will make its way "through these tight times" by focusing on high-priority areas.

One of Baker's priorities is to increase economic development, which is why he has a $50 million investment fund. He explained that Prince George's County is too reliant on residential property taxes, and it needs to expand the number of business that are contributing.

Another concern Baker noted is Gov. Martin O'Malley's plan to shift part of the teacher pension costs to the counties. If that happens, he said the county's projected deficit could increase by $40 million to $80 million.

Baker has to submit his operating and capital budgets to the Prince George's County Council by March 15.

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