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Prince George's dilemma Tax freeze: No new levies without voter approval puts government in a bind.


VOTERS IN Prince George's County, furious over what they consider a betrayal of their trust by elected leaders, last month imposed an ironclad lid on local tax increases. No garbage tax, parking fine or user fee can be raised without getting voter approval in the 1998 election. That puts local government in an extraordinary bind.

What County Executive Wayne Curry is now undertaking will be watched closely in other Maryland subdivisions. Though he fought the tax freeze vote, Mr. Curry has vowed to give residents precisely what they say they want -- a "smaller, leaner government." Already, Mr. Curry has ordered department heads to cut their current budgets by 15 percent for next year. The only exceptions were police (5 percent cut) and schools (probably just the minimum increase required by law). He also dropped plans to speed construction of five schools to end overcrowding.

It seems clear that more county employees will be laid off; more libraries closed; class sizes increased substantially; a freeze on replacing or updating police and fire and rescue equipment, and a continuation of the freeze on county pay (the last pay hike was under County Executive Parris Glendening).

What so infuriated Prince George's voters? A big pension scandal under Mr. Glendening, the $108 million deficit Mr. Glendening ran up before he left for the Governor's Mansion, six-figure salaries paid to top county managers (in line with what other counties in the Washington area pay) and higher property taxes levied on them by municipalities and the regional park commission (taxes beyond Mr. Curry's control). Voters decided that their own officials can't be trusted to spend their money wisely or frugally.

So on Nov. 5, they stripped the power to tax from elected leaders by 62-38 percent. That sets up a bold experiment in local government.

Can Mr. Curry simply make do with less, running P.G. on a shoestring year after year without cutting into services citizens have come to expect? Can he fight crime and bolster a troubled school system without more money? If he cannot, voters in Prince George's may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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