Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III admitted he tried to keep his emotions in check last week when he proposed the fiscal 2019 budget.
The 59-year-old lawmaker, whose two-term, eight-year tenure expires in December because of term limits, will have the County Council review a $4 billion spending plan which offers additional money for education and public safety.
“I’ve been talking with the cabinet, to the County Council and I’ve been [emotional] … about our journey here,” Baker said. “We talked about the fights with each other over proposals. If I talk long enough, I’ll start crying.”
Although the budget projects a less than $10 million deficit, Baker pointed out that he originally inherited a deficit of more than $125 million when he took office eight years ago. Additionally, his 2019 proposal doesn’t call for a tax increase.
“The one good thing we are not working with a major deficit like we’ve over the last several years,” said County Councilman Obie Patterson (D-District 8) of Fort Washington.
Patterson, one of three council members who will work on their last budget because of term limits, said he’s pleased schools would receive an increase in funding.
The budget Baker presented March 14 highlights the biggest investment: more than $2 billion in education, a nearly 4 percent increase from the current budget. Some of the items would pay for construction projects at Suitland High School, replacement of William Wirt Middle School and expansion of pre-K programs.
Baker has ensured the public schools received more money, but some controversies have ensued such as an audit targeting grade inflation and high absenteeism among the past two graduating classes. Three school board members presented allegations of high-ranking school officials receiving raises and requested Baker look into it.
An internal audit of the allegations is underway.
“I know we have giving a lot of money to schools and I’m OK with that, but I want to see a little more accountability,” Patterson said. “I want to see some more checks and balances.”
The budget also earmarked $754 million for public safety — a nearly 7 percent increase from this fiscal year — to add 125 more police officers, a new fire station in Oxon Hill and two new positions in the sheriff’s office to support its domestic violence unit.
Residents voted in 2016 to expand the council from nine to 11 for two at-large seats, but the expansion could cost more than $2 million to pay for council salaries, their staff, furniture and supplies.
Although council approved the measure before the question to increase council went to the voters, Patterson said it would’ve been to eliminate two of the nine council districts and make two of the seats at-large to represent the entire county.
Baker said various jurisdictions such as Montgomery County have at-large positions to help present views for the entire county, such as economic development.
“What the voters saw and what I saw is you need council members to have a county-wide perspective,” he said. “Having somebody with those county-wide perspectives are good for us.”
A new program Baker introduced to help those with dementia, titled “Safe Return,” would be administered by the county’s Department of Health, Human Services and Education.
Funding would be used to provide GPS bracelets for dementia sufferers to wear on their wrists. If they wander off from a home, or health care facility, the police would be able to track the person’s location.
Betty Hager Francis, who heads the department, said funding would provide families with case management, respite care and other resources.
“The memory impairment doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t get around … and they get around fast,” she said. “Having this tracker on will be able for the police to find them quickly. We want to work with families because they really need some assistance.”
The budget will be passed along to the county council to review, with a June 1 target date for approval.