Change in the D.C. Suburbs


Nowhere is the velocity of changing economic and political winds greater than in the Washington suburbs. After coasting to election victory, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening finds himself presiding over Maryland's first round of local layoffs. In Montgomery, County Executive Neal Potter is grappling with a difficult transition and troublesome budget shortfall.

To close Prince George's $49.9 million revenue gap, Mr. Glendening plans to furlough 190 workers and freeze another 649 vacant positions.

These unpleasant steps are likely to be duplicated in neighboring Montgomery, long the rich county cousin, which faces a $65 million revenue shortfall this year and a shortage as high as $185 million in the next fiscal year.

This puts Mr. Potter in the position of dousing fiscal fires while fashioning his management framework. His dilemma is made worse by growing school enrollments, union contracts and increased transportation projects. And the transfer of power has not been easy, given his estrangement to the business community and the write-in campaign of former executive Sidney Kramer.

Nonetheless, Mr. Potter has moved quickly, reaching out to corporate and community leaders. Particularly telling was his appointment of William Hussmann, a development officer and former county official, as chief administrative officer.

In Prince George's, Mr. Glendening, too, is mending fences. In a county long accused of excluding blacks from power, he has named budget director Major F. Riddick Jr. as chief administrative officer -- the first black in the Washington suburbs to hold the top appointive staff post.

Another change looming on the horizon in both counties is the tax overhaul proposed by the Linowes commission that would raise some $800 million in new taxes, much of which would be used to close the gap in education and other services between wealthy and poorer jurisdictions.

Voices from the Washington suburbs, particularly Montgomery, have stridently opposed the redistribution, claiming it burdens the county unfairly. We disagree. What this really does is help level the playing field. In wealthy Montgomery, the tax changes would mean an extra $12 million; in less affluent Prince George's, the changes would lead to a $63 million increase in state aid.

Leaders in the Washington suburbs have been quick to recognize the realities of a slowing economy. With their growth engines stalling, Prince George's and Montgomery might find it advantageous to end their isolation from the rest of the state. Giving the Linowes report a fair hearing could be a first step.

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