Friday, February 12, 2016

BREAKING: Prince George’s Council Wants Its “Call-Up” Authority Back

The Prince George’s County Council is asking the local county delegation of the Maryland House of Delegates to pass a bill that would allow the council to resume its destructive practice of interfering with the county Planning Board’s decisions on individual development projects. A subcommittee is holding a another hearing on the bill tomorrow, February 12, at 4:00 pm on February 18 at 9:00 am in Annapolis, to consider the bill and possibly move it forward for the full delegation’s consideration.

This bill seeks to overturn a recent unanimous decision by Maryland’s highest court, which held that the County Council is only permitted to overturn Planning Board decisions if they lack evidentiary support or are arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise illegal.

The court held that the Planning Board—part of a bi-county planning and zoning agency formally known as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC)—has the legal authority and responsibility to render final decisions on individual development projects. The County Council, on the other hand, is responsible for appointing the Planning Board members and setting the general zoning and land use regulations that the Planning Board must interpret and apply.

Prior to last summer’s decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, county council members would routinely use a discretionary “call-up” procedure to force a review of the Planning Board’s rulings on individual development projects, even when no one else complained about them, or even if there was nothing legally wrong with how the Planning Board decided the case. During these reviews, council members would often impose additional conditions on developers, even if those decisions were not required by the Zoning Ordinance, and even if those conditions contradicted the Planning Board’s analysis.

Sometimes council members used the “call-up” procedure in response to complaints from constituents or citizen groups who were dissatisfied with the Planning Board’s decisions. Other times, council members would unilaterally call projects up if they didn’t like them, for whatever reason. And all too often, corrupt council members have historically used this power to exact campaign contributions, political favors, and even under-the-table cash payments from developers, as part of an insidious “pay-to-play” scheme.

Council “Call-Up” is Bad for County's Development Prospects

Whatever the reasons for its use, the “call-up” procedure renders the county’s development review process arbitrary, uncertain, and usually more expensive—which is the exact opposite of what should be happening if the county wants to attract quality development, particularly around its Metro stations. Many respected developers have refused to consider development opportunities in Prince George’s County because they don't want to be subjected to the political whims of individual council members. And why would they, when they can just go to the adjoining county and have a much more certain understanding of how a development application will be processed?

Prince George's County Council
The only people who win under the old “call-up” regime are the greedy and power-hungry County Council members, who unfortunately cannot seem to look beyond themselves and make decisions that are in the best interests of moving Prince George’s County forward. Even if the council were motivated solely by a desire to respond to constituents’ concerns about particular developments (which is totally not the case), it’s still a bad idea to reinstate the “call-up” procedure, because of the politicization and arbitrariness it brings to the development process.

If council members really want to help out constituents and developers alike, they should focus on making the zoning rules clearer, simpler, and easier for the Planning Board and the county permitting office to administer. (This, by the way, is the goal of the Zoning Rewrite Project that M-NCPPC is currently engaged in.)

Hopefully Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker will speak out on this and urge the county delegation and/or the legislature to kill this awful bill. Bringing back “call-up” review certainly won’t help his efforts to bring more transit-oriented development to the county’s largest Metro stations, or anywhere else for that matter.

The county delegation needs to hear from you if you oppose this bill—and you should definitely oppose it! Please reach out to the subcommittee members and the full county delegation and tell them to reject Local Bill No. PG/MC 111-16 (HB 1025).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

WMATA Gives Pedestrians a Serious Snow Job

Addison Road Metro Station
If anyone should know the importance of providing safe pedestrian paths to transit stations, it’s a transit authority. But apparently, WMATA can’t be bothered with all that.

Metro’s Addison Road Station, a Blue and Silver line stop in Prince George’s County, has about a quarter-mile of street frontage on one of the county’s main arterial roads, Central Avenue (MD-214).

On Friday, January 29—5 days after the last snowflake fell from #Snowmageddon2016—the sidewalks abutting Metro’s property along Central Avenue were still slicked over with snow, slush, and ice. Metro knew it, and customers had complained about it, but the transit agency just didn’t seem to care.

A Two-Day Quest to Clear Snow from Metro's Sidewalks

I first encountered the problem the day before, on Thursday, January 28, as I was heading back to my office in DC for the first time in nearly a week. As I left my house, which is about a 10-minute walk to the Metro station, I approached Central Avenue with a healthy sense of trepidation about getting to the station safely. That’s with good reason, since people have been struck by cars and killed in Prince George’s while walking in the roadway to get to a Metro station after a snowstorm, because the sidewalks were blocked with snow.

When I got to Metro’s property, I expected to be able finally to have a relatively peaceful walk for the rest of my trip, because I just knew the transit authority’s sidewalks would be clear, right? Wrong! The sidewalks were in atrocious condition.

I alerted the station manager to the situation, and she first told me that it wasn’t Metro’s responsibility to clear the sidewalks. I told her that wasn’t true, that those sidewalks were along Metro’s property line, and that Metro had to clear its walkways just like everybody else. With a somewhat skeptical facial expression, she told me she’d follow up on it.

Just to be sure, I also went online to Metro’s website and reported the problem myself. And even though I reported it as a safety issue, the automated response I got back from Metro said they would get back to me in 5-7 business days. Because…you know…why would Metro ever need to address a safety problem right away?

I didn’t return home via Metro that Thursday evening, so my next trip to the Addison Road Station was on Friday morning. To my shock, the sidewalks along Metro’s property were still a mess. The poor lady walking ahead of me in this photo was slipping and sliding all over the place, and I wasn’t doing much better:

Once I finally got to the station, I approached the same station manager I had spoken to the previous day and asked her, somewhat incredulously this time, whether she had followed up as she said she would. She said she had, and that it was her understanding that the county or the state was supposed clear the sidewalks.
Seeing that I was getting nowhere with the station manager, I tweeted the above picture and tagged Metro, Prince George’s County Executive, Rushern Baker, and a Washington Post reporter.

Metro replied to the tweet a few minutes later, told me it wasn’t their responsibility to clean the sidewalk, and forwarded me an article about who’s responsibility it was to clean bus stops.

After clarifying that I wasn’t talking about a bus stop, but rather Metro’s own property, the Metro rep thanked me and tweeted that he would report the problem.

So when I got back to Addison Road nine hours later, the sidewalk was definitely all clear, right? Wrong! Here’s how it looked on my return trip:

Metro boasts on its website that it has all the equipment and personnel it needs to handle snowy weather:
Metro has nearly 600 pieces of snow equipment available to tackle snow and ice accumulation at stations, rail yards, parking garages, and bus facilities. Hundreds of employees and contractors can be called upon to respond to snow conditions.
And in fact, there is plenty snow removal equipment at Addison Road Metro Station. I’ve seen it. I saw it yesterday, even. And I know it’s being used, because the parking decks, bus loops, and surrounding vehicle infrastructure at the station are never snowy or icy. Also, the area directly in front of the station entrance is usually well plowed and salted. So why the disconnect with the sidewalks?

Late Friday evening, County Executive Baker replied to the series of tweets and asked one of Metro’s Maryland board representatives, Malcolm Augustine, to follow up on this matter. Mr. Augustine promptly replied, apologized, and promised to follow up:

I very much appreciate County Executive Baker’s stepping in to address this matter, and likewise appreciate the prompt response of Metro’s board member, Mr. Augustine. But seriously, it should not take the county’s chief executive and a Metro board member’s personal involvement to clear a sidewalk after a snowstorm.

Metro is required under its interstate compact to comply with local laws, including sidewalk clearing laws. But setting that aside: Metro’s whole raison d’ĂȘtre is to provide and facilitate safe, convenient transit ridership in the region. It should be a community leader when it comes to ensuring that pedestrians can come and go safely to and from their facilities.

Just as Metro is recommitting itself to improve safety in its rail and bus network, it must also do a better job in the future to ensure that its stations and surrounding areas, including sidewalks, are safe and accessible to all of its customers.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Prince George’s Should Allow Dead Sprawl Projects to Rest in Peace

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr
Ever since 2009, the Prince George’s County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Now, council members are considering legislation that would give these long-dead projects yet another two-year extension, through the end of 2017. It’s time for the council to give up the ghost on these projects.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George’s, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway. Indeed, buyers are still able to garner great deals on many spacious suburban homes that went into foreclosure during the housing bust.

These Zombie Projects Are Clogging the County's Pipeline

As I noted in 2013, it makes no sense for the council to extend the approval windows for these types of scattered sprawl projects. County planners have already concluded that such development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it “difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan.”

More importantly, planners note that the county’s continuing lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it “at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide.”

Despite those exhortations against sprawl development, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude in its current General Plan that the county actually has “too many” Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would “undermine economic growth.”

But if the council would instead just allow these old projects to die a natural death, the projected pipeline of residential development would dramatically decrease, and the county could readjust its long-term growth projections to include more transit-oriented development inside the Beltway. In particular, the county could decide to direct some much-needed attention toward its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near the D.C. border.

TAKE ACTION: The council’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. You can use this link to address your comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Court Limits Prince George’s County Council’s Role in Development Review

Judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals
In a striking 100-page decision issued earlier this month, Maryland’s highest court ruled unanimously that the Prince George’s County Council lacks the legal authority to decide for itself whether individual development projects should be approved or disapproved.

Rather, the council must generally uphold the decisions of the Planning Board in development review matters unless those decisions are unsupported by substantial evidence or are otherwise arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

To borrow a phrase famously uttered by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010, this case is “a big f***ing deal!

This landmark decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals strengthens the hand of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), the state-created planning and zoning agency that operates in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

According to the high court, Maryland law gives the Prince George’s County Planning Board (one of two subcomponents of MNCPPC) broad legal authority to act in a variety of local land-use matters that affect Prince George’s County, including approval of subdivisions, assignment of street names and numbers, preparation of comprehensive plans, and review of development proposals.

The authority of the Prince George’s County Council (known as the “District Council” when it acts in a land use capacity) is more discretely defined under state law, but still quite significant, according to the court. For instance, in addition to appointing the members of the Planning Board, the council possesses the legislative authority to approve and amend the county’s zoning ordinance and zoning map, including any rezoning of land in the county. The council must also approve and amend the comprehensive plans that are initially drafted by the Planning Board.

Nevertheless, the council’s authority over individual development plans and projects has been significantly curtailed by this recent decision.

The Basic Holding: The County Council Cannot Second-Guess the Planning Board

The decision significantly reduces the amount of political influence that the Prince George’s County Council can exert over developers and individual development projects. Traditionally, the council has liberally used its discretionary authority to “call up” a case decided by the Planning Board for further review, even when the developer and opposing parties of record choose not to challenge the Planning Board’s decision.

In those discretionary “call-up” reviews, and in any appeals of Planning Board decisions initiated by the parties, the Prince George’s County Council always purported to exercise “original jurisdiction,” meaning that it could choose to ignore the Planning Board’s reasoning and come to a different decision based on the evidence developed during the Planning Board hearing.

The Court of Appeals, in upholding two lower court decisions, determined that the Prince George’s County Council had misinterpreted the scope of its authority in these types of second-tier administrative reviews.

The court said the council was not authorized to exercise original jurisdiction when reviewing Planning Board decisions, whether on an appeal initiated by the parties or in a discretionary “call-up” review. Rather, similar to the judiciary, the council could only exercise “appellate jurisdiction” in these matters—which means that it could overturn the Planning Board’s determinations only if they were not supported by evidence, or if they were legally erroneous.

In other words, the council could not substitute its own judgment for that of the Planning Board, even if the evidence would allow for both results.

Notably, unlike Prince George’s, the Montgomery County Council does not have a second-tier administrative review process for individual development review applications decided by the Montgomery Planning Board. Instead, all such disputes are resolved directly by the courts.

How We Got Here: An Epic Battle to Build a CVS

Photo by JeepersMedia on Flickr
This lawsuit arose out of a nearly 10-year effort to build a retail center with a CVS pharmacy on a 4-acre parcel of land known as the Edwards Property, located in Adelphi, Maryland. The Court of Appeals described the ensuing struggle as “a battle of almost epic proportions” waged by the various litigants.

In 2004, the property owner applied to the District Council for a rezoning of the Edwards Property from Rural-Residential (R-R) to Local Activity Center (LAC), a mixed-use floating zone that allowed for small-scale retail development. The owner included the required Basic Plan setting forth a general description of future land uses on the property. The council approved the rezoning request, subject to a list of conditions which were included in the ordinance approving the rezoning.

In 2011, Zimmer Development Company submitted simultaneous applications for a Comprehensive Design Plan (CDP) and a Specific Design Plan (SDP) to the Planning Board for review. These plans set forth in more concrete detail the developer’s plans for developing the Edwards Property. MNCPPC staff reviewed and recommended approval of Zimmer’s plans, and after a public evidentiary hearing, the Planning Board approved the plans with a list of conditions, finding that the applications met the requirements of the LAC zone approved by the council.

Although no one appealed the Planning Board’s decision, the council nevertheless “called up” the decision for review. After hearing oral arguments, the council remanded the decision to the Planning Board for reconsideration of three specific issues regarding whether Zimmer needed to provide additional mitigation to lessen the impact of the proposed retail center on the surrounding community. The Planning Board held another hearing in 2012 and essentially reapproved Zimmer’s application on similar conditions, making specific findings in response to the three areas of concern noted by the council.

As it did with the first Planning Board decision, the council “called up” the Planning Board’s post-remand decision, even though nobody had appealed it. This time, the council unanimously voted to disapprove Zimmer's application after the council member in whose district the Edwards Property lay spoke against it.

The council’s unanimous denial of the development project is an example of another well-known and much-derided practice called “council courtesy,” whereby council members effectively exercise unilateral veto power over development projects in their districts, regardless of the merits of the proposal.

The council's resolution listed 14 reasons for its denial of Zimmer's development application, including failure to comply with various conditions of the original LAC zone. None of those reasons related to the three issues the council first complained of in its original "call-up" review and remand. Zimmer's appeal of the council's denial in the courts ultimately resulted in the high court decision earlier this month.

The case is County Council of Prince George’s County v. Zimmer Development Co., No. 64, Sept. Term, 2014 (Md. Aug. 20, 2015).

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Baker’s “Compromise” Tax Hike for Schools Plan Still Misses

County Executive Baker. Image by MDGovpics on flickr.
In a hastily arranged press conference earlier today, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker finally threw in the towel on his ill-conceived and politically doomed plan to dramatically raise property and other local taxes to fund a $133 million increase in the public schools budget.

But in a final “Hail Mary” effort less than 24 hours before the scheduled County Council vote, he’s now proposing a “compromise” plan for a $65 million increase.

The problem for the county executive is that simply cutting a bad plan in half does not transform it into a good plan.

Claiming that he had heard the public’s voices in opposition to his original request over the last several weeks, Baker essentially adopted the purported compromise proposal that the county Chamber of Commerce had floated last week—the same one he flatly panned at the time. In addition, Baker said he’d support a sunset of any tax increases in 2020, after the projected education revenues from the new MGM Casino at National Harbor had a chance to come in.

Baker’s latest proposal came with no financial specifics as to how he envisions the $65 million infusion being allocated—and Baker’s spokesperson did not provide a response when asked for specific figures. However, the county executive did indicate that teacher pay increases, pre-kindergarten expansion, and school-based budgeting should remain priorities. He also claims that anything less than $65 million would not “move the needle.”

Without providing specific numbers at this late stage, Baker’s proposal simply cannot be taken as a serious effort to urge new ideas to the council. Instead, the county executive’s proposal seems designed to salvage a partial victory out of a proposal that was headed for certain defeat tomorrow.

The CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), Dr. Kevin Maxwell, did not appear with Baker at his press conference today and offered no comment in response to his eleventh-hour revised proposal.

Earlier this week, I suggested that the council should adopt a modified version of Dr. Maxwell’s original $1.84 billion budget request. I still urge the council to take that course tomorrow, for all the reasons previously stated. At the very least, Dr. Maxwell’s budget was well thought out and contains specific numbers—which is way more than can be said of the county executive’s plan.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Prince George’s Should Adopt the School System CEO’s Original Budget

CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell. Image from PGCPS.
This past December—before Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker hatched his hare-brained idea to raise the county’s already-too-high local taxes through the roof—the public schools CEO, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, requested a $1.84 billion budget for FY2016.

Everyone agreed that Dr. Maxwell’s budget would allow the schools to continue making progress, as they had been doing over the previous year under his leadership. This is the budget that, with some modifications, the County Council should adopt this week.

Much of the debate and discussion over the past two months has centered on the revised $1.93 billion budget that Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) and the county executive proposed in March. This revised proposal would increase the county’s tax-funded contribution to the school system by $133 million and would require a 15.6% increase in real property tax rates and a 50% increase in cell phone tax rates, among other tax increases. Baker would use a state law loophole to get around the county charter-imposed property tax cap known as TRIM, which has been in place since 1978.

Even after weeks of town halls and community forums, the public and the county council remain skeptical about Baker’s tax-hike plan to fund the revised PGCPS budget proposal. A 2014 state audit of PGCPS’s financial practices noted serious concerns with the system’s financial controls, accountability practices, and cost efficiency strategies. Several council members have called for a full and independent performance audit of PGCPS’s practices, but that won’t happen until at least a year from now.

No one on the council has voiced support for Baker’s schools plan, although some appear willing to consider a modest property tax increase of about 3%. The county Chamber of Commerce floated a proposed compromise to cut Baker’s tax increase in half, to about 8%, but the county executive shot down that plan.

The council is scheduled to adopt the FY2016 budget on Thursday, May 28, and council members are reportedly still trying to craft a final draft. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel as far as PGCPS is concerned, because the budget that Dr. Maxwell originally proposed in December gets it largely right.

Dr. Maxwell’s Budget Will Allow PGCPS to Continue Making Progress

Since Dr. Maxwell took over as CEO of PGCPS in the 2013-14 school year, enrollment has grown, graduation rates have increased, and promotion rates have improved. When he released his proposed FY2016 budget in December, Dr. Maxwell stated that it “continues the progress we have made, while recognizing that fiscal uncertainties do exist.”

The CEO’s budget proposed a 2.5% increase over the FY2015 budget of $1.8 billion and included a $53.5 million increase in the county tax contribution. $14.3 million of that amount was required by increased enrollment coupled with state law-imposed “Maintenance of Effort” (MOE) requirements, which dictate that school systems cannot backtrack on per-pupil expenditure levels from year to year.

Image from Global Partnership for Education on Flickr
The remaining $39.2 million of Dr. Maxwell’s proposed budget increase was designed to fund certain priorities in his strategic plan, including expanded pre-kindergarten programs, additional reading specialists, and expansion of high-demand programs like language immersion, International Baccalaureate, and Montessori.

In the December 12, 2014, news release announcing Dr. Maxwell’s requested budget, Board of Education chair Dr. Segun Eubanks said, “Dr. Maxwell has proposed an ambitious budget to move our system forward.” Similarly, county executive Baker lauded Dr. Maxwell’s proposal as “prudent and pragmatic,” noting that it “appears to fund priorities and invests in programs that will attract families to PGCPS.”

In other words, everyone agreed more than five months ago that Dr. Maxwell’s originally proposed FY2016 budget was sound and that it would move PGCPS forward.

Dr. Maxwell’s Budget Comports With the County Charter and TRIM

Being a longtime Prince George’s resident and having worked in the PGCPS system previously, Dr. Maxwell was fully cognizant of the property tax caps imposed by TRIM. He was also aware that the county charter required any increase in property taxes to be approved by the voters in a referendum. Thus, Dr. Maxwell crafted a budget with those principles in mind.

In 2012, the Maryland legislature passed a state law (SB 848) that allows counties to exceed charter-imposed property tax caps to fund education programs. However, this law was designed to ensure that counties could meet their MOE requirements (as discussed above) in the unusual circumstance where their property tax caps would not otherwise allow them to do so.

Prince George’s MOE requirement for FY2016 would only necessitate an increase of $14.3 million in the PGCPS budget, which the county could easily do without raising tax rates. County executive Baker’s proposal, by contrast, seeks to use SB 848 to effect a discretionary budget increase of more than nine times that required by MOE. This smacks of political gamesmanship and abuse, and only exacerbates the well-earned trust deficit that county officials have sown with their citizens through years of corrupt practices.

If the county executive wants to overturn TRIM and the charter requirement for referendum approval of taxing increases, he should make his case with the citizens and propose the appropriate charter amendments to be voted on in an election. What he shouldn’t do is misuse a well-intentioned piece of emergency state legislation to do an end-run around the people who put him in office.

The Council Should Fund Some Additional Student-Supportive Items

Dr. Maxwell’s initial budget request included a $39 million reserve for “negotiated compensation improvements,” presumably for teachers. However, it did not include approximately $9 million in additional funding for several later-proposed items relating to the “Safe and Supportive Environments” and “Family and Community Engagement” prongs of his strategic plan. Dr. Maxwell’s budget also did not include the approximately $2 million in additional funding that would be needed to fully fund the pre-kindergarten expansion. Instead of fully funding the $39 million teacher compensation reserve, the County Council should modify Dr. Maxwell’s budget request to include the $11 million for those missing items.

Image by naught_facility on Flickr.
Dr. Maxwell has made a compelling case over the past couple of months for the need to establish a second shift for maintenance workers and purchase additional supplies, to allow the school system to address several deferred maintenance issues more quickly. He’s also made impassioned and convincing arguments for including additional funding for a universal free breakfast program, parent advocates, and translation services, among other items. And the importance of pre-kindergarten programs can hardly be doubted.

In contrast, Dr. Maxwell’s arguments for enhanced teacher compensation fall quite flat and, in some respects, are plainly disingenuous. The average teacher compensation in PGCPS is already the fourth- or fifth-highest in Maryland, behind Montgomery, Calvert, and Howard counties, and sometimes Baltimore City. PGCPS also far exceeds the average compensation rates in Virginia and nationally.

Contrary to Dr. Maxwell’s stump-speech arguments during the recent town hall forums, PGCPS is not losing a high number of teachers to higher-paying school districts like Montgomery County. In fact, of the 2,871 teachers who left PGCPS between 2010-2013 (the most recent three years for which attrition statistics are available), only 75 (or 2.6%) left for higher-paying school districts in Maryland, and only 48 of those (or 1.7%) went to Montgomery County. (PGCPS officials refused repeated requests to provide data on the number of teachers, if any, who left for higher-paying jobs in DC or Virginia.)

The remaining $28 million that Dr. Maxwell proposed for reserve teacher compensation improvements should be used to offset the $20 million reduction in state funding to PGCPS resulting from Governor Larry Hogan’s refusal to fully fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) formula and/or to reduce or eliminate the need for furloughs in other part of county government.

Bottom line: there is no need to raise local taxes to ensure adequate funding for the Prince George’s County Public Schools. The county council should instead fund the FY2016 budget that Dr. Maxwell originally requested this past December, with slight modifications to ensure adequate funding for safe and supportive schools and family and community engagement.

UPDATE (05/26/2014 11:00 pm): Several people have contacted me offline and asked for a clearer breakdown of the modifications to Dr. Maxwell's budget that I'm suggesting in this blog. I've posted a marked-up document HERE that provides those figures.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Skeptical Council Debates Proposed Prince George’s Tax Increases

Prince George's County Council. All images by County.
A funny thing happened last week at a town hall meeting in Capitol Heights: the Prince George’s County Council actually engaged in a meaningful and full-throated debate with citizens and the executive branch of county government over the proposed FY2016 public schools budget.

The council is weighing county executive Rushern Baker’s proposal to raise a variety of local taxes, including a 16% increase in real property taxes, to pay for the additional $133 million that the school district is seeking in next year’s budget. The council must approve a final budget no later than May 31 for the fiscal year beginning June 1.

Public hearings before the county council are often like choreographed stage plays, where council members listen in polite silence to their constituents for up to three minutes each and then either immediately adjourn or, with little to no debate or discussion, proceed to do what they had already made up their minds to do. (Tuesday's budget hearing in Upper Marlboro generally followed that mold.)

But council members went somewhat “off-script” at last week’s town hall, which was held at Central High School on April 21. Instead of dispassionately receiving public comments, council members became integrally and vocally involved in the debate. They listened intently and actively, often amplifying the concerns expressed by the citizens. And sometimes, they openly challenged the county executive and the CEO of the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), Dr. Kevin Maxwell.

Baker and Maxwell have been holding their own series of meetings with the public, but those have been much more stilted affairs by design. Typically, the county executive and his staff, the schools CEO, and the school board chair, Dr. Segun Eubanks, give a presentation about why they are proposing the tax increases and the expanded schools budget. Then, they proceed to answer selected written questions that the audience members have put on index cards. However, the county executive’s staff handpicks the questions that are actually presented to the panel for a response.

Dr. Eubanks, Dr. Maxwell, and County Executive Baker
Baker, Maxwell, and Eubanks were also present last week at the council’s town hall, and they gave essentially the same presentation as they typically do at their own forums. This time, though, the citizens’ questions were coming from the floor, uncensored, and the council members were present to hear and react to them in real time.

If you have time and want to get the best overview of all sides of this debate, you should really watch the whole three-hour town hall. For those that can’t or don’t wish to do that, here are a few of the highlights:

Rushern Baker falsely believes the only thing holding down Prince George’s home values is the county’s low-performing schools. The county executive seems to have convinced himself that he has solved all of the county’s myriad of problems and that the only thing left for him to do is transform the school system: “The reason the value of the homes in Prince George’s County aren’t the same as surrounding jurisdictions is not because of crime, because crime is down; it’s not because of economic development, because we have economic development coming; it’s not because of healthcare. It’s because of our schools,” Baker exclaimed. The quality of the schools “determines the value of the homes. That’s the difference between us and the other areas…That’s the only thing we haven’t done.”

Baker’s claim, of course, is more political spin than substance or truth. School quality certainly has an impact on home values, but it is not the sole factor. Nor is the relatively low quality of Prince George’s schools the sole factor that distinguishes Prince George’s County from its neighbors.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, the county’s racial demographics significantly reduce home values irrespective of any other factor. More importantly, it is well known that the county’s long history of corruption and its overly politicized development review process significantly hinder major employers and high-quality developers from doing business in the county. And let’s not forget the devastating economic consequences of the county’s more than 30 years of neglect of its transit-rich inner-Beltway gateway communities. These are all real issues that the county executive must face honestly—and none of them have anything to do with schools.

Lehman chastises Baker for rushing this proposal through and not seeking to build public support for it. In one of the more heated exchanges of the evening, councilwoman Mary Lehman (District 1) pointedly criticized the county executive for his take-it-or-leave-it approach in seeking to push these hefty tax increases through: “This cannot be presented as an all-or-nothing. We should’ve had this conversation a year ago, and Mr. Baker could’ve built public support for [this budget]. And he chose not to.”

Baker & Lehman square off in a tense exchange.
Toles and Lehman push back on Baker’s comparison of Prince George’s to its wealthier neighbors. One of the county executive’s central talking points for why the county needs higher taxes to fund schools is that counties like Montgomery pay more for their school systems, including paying higher salaries for teachers. But council members Karen Toles (District 7) and Mary Lehman (District 1) countered that argument with the reality that Prince George’s is simply not as wealthy as its neighbors.

“In other counties…they have a higher commercial tax base, so they have more money coming into their coffers, so they are able to invest more money,” Toles said. In spite of that wealth disparity, Toles rightly noted that Prince George’s already pays a similar percentage of its local taxes into education, and that Prince George’s gets more state aid than Montgomery does to make up for the wealth disparity.

Lehman made the point more plainly to Baker: “When you compare us to Anne Arundel and Howard, you do us a huge disservice…I think it is disingenuous to compare…this county to our much wealthier neighbors…We don’t have a money tree in this county.”

Councilman Turner
Turner urges caution, noting that the proposed increase to the school system budget will be virtually irreversible in future years. Councilman Todd Turner (District 4) urged his colleagues to consider the future ramifications of making such a huge increase in the school system’s operating budget. Under a Maryland state law known as “maintenance of effort,” counties are generally prohibited from reducing the amount of their local portion of school funding. Therefore, if the county accepts the county executive’s tax increase proposal this year, it will have to continue funding schools at that level in subsequent years—even if CEO Maxwell’s strategic plan doesn’t end up bringing the school system from near the bottom into the top 10, as he predicts.

Councilwoman Taveras
Taveras suggests postponing any increases in the school budget until an independent performance audit is completed. Councilwoman Deni Taveras (District 2) pointed out that the county spends 64% of its local revenues on the public school system and that it is important to ensure that PGCPS is spending that money in the wisest and most effective way possible. She further declared that “this budget is not going to move” until the county council reaches an agreement with the school system as to how and when a performance audit will be completed.

Toles expresses disbelief that a funding increase will result in better schools. Councilwoman Karen Toles (District 7) asked CEO Maxwell point blank whether he could guarantee that the $133 million increase that he is proposing as part of his strategic plan will in fact raise PGCPS’s ranking “from the bottom to the top.” CEO Maxwell said he could, and noted that he had already started turning the school system around by increasing graduation rates, improving promotion rates, and growing enrollment.

Councilwoman Toles
Unpersuaded, Toles shot back, “I don’t believe you.” She noted that Baltimore City pays the second-highest amount per pupil in school expenditures, but nevertheless remains at the bottom of the heap in terms of performance. Additionally, Toles cited Maxwell’s successes during the previous academic year as evidence that the school system can make improvements without huge tax increases.

Toles’s and Tavares’s points actually get to the crux of the issue, which is that there is no necessary correlation between more money and better schools. As I outlined in an earlier article, there are other large school systems with economies comparable to Prince George’s, such as Virginia Beach, that are funded at much lower levels, but that nevertheless outperform Prince George’s, even controlling for race. The real question is whether PGCPS is wisely using the money it has.

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The council members’ insightful commentary and thoughtful public engagement and debate on the issues surrounding the proposed FY2016 public schools budget came as a welcome surprise to many Prince Georgians. The county could use a great deal more of these kinds of debates.