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.

* * *

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.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Strolling Through “Downtown” New Carrollton

New Carrollton Station. Image by author.
The New Carrollton transit station in Prince George’s County—serving Metrorail, MARC, Amtrak, and a host of local, regional, and intercity buses—is the Washington region’s second-most significant multimodal transportation hub, behind Union Station in DC. Soon, Metro and county officials hope that the station will anchor the county’s first true “downtown.”

The Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) recently conducted an extensive walking tour of the station area to highlight the latest joint transit-oriented development (TOD) plans prepared by Urban Atlantic and Forest City Washington. WMATA and the State of Maryland selected these developers in 2010 to develop approximately 41 acres of surface parking area adjacent to and across from the station.

Image by WMATA

This project’s been a long time coming

New Carrollton’s longtime mayor, Andrew Hanko, explained how this project was the latest in a series of efforts over the past several decades to breathe life into the station area, which currently lies just outside of his city’s municipal limits. District 3 county councilwoman Dannielle Glaros echoed those sentiments and gave the group a brief history of the many comprehensive plans that the county has created for the area.

CSG policy director, Cheryl Cort, and the chief of countywide planning for the Prince George’s Planning Department, Derick Berlage, added that the county’s new General Plan fully supports this type of intensive development at New Carrollton, which is one of three “downtown” station areas slated to receive the bulk of the county’s economic development resources over the next 20 years. The others are Largo Town Center and Prince George’s Plaza.

(While I support the General Plan’s effort to direct up to half of the county’s future growth over the next 20 years to the three designated “downtowns” and five other “regional transit districts,” I continue to believe that the county can and should do more to develop and revitalize the close-in gateway Metro station areas near the DC line.)

The goal: build a viable central business district

At full build-out, these currently vacant parking lots are envisioned to have 2.7 million square feet of new TOD, including 1.3 million square feet of apartments (approximately 1,370 units), 1.1 million square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space, and 150,000 square feet of hotel space. It would look something like this:

Image by WMATA.

The first phase of development will be decidedly more modest, however: 260,000 square feet of apartments (approximately 260 units) and 13,000 square feet of retail. This is comparable to, but slightly smaller than, the Jenkins Row development across from the more neighborhood-scaled Potomac Avenue Metro Station in southeast Washington, DC, with about a quarter of the retail and slightly more residential.

Phase 1 of the project will go on the south side of the station, which has the bulk of the developable area. Just look at all this available space:

South side development areas. Image by author

Urban Atlantic’s Dan McCabe explained that starting on the station’s south side would also allow construction of the Purple Line’s eastern terminus station to proceed uninterrupted on the north side of the station, should the light rail project be approved by Governor Hogan.

If all goes as planned, groundbreaking on Phase 1 could occur as early as next year.

Stan Wall, director of WMATA’s Office of Real Estate and Station Area Planning, emphasized that future phases of development would need to be “market driven,” and that the joint development framework with Urban Atlantic and Forest City contemplates this. Essentially, WMATA would negotiate ground leases of up to 98 years for each discrete phase of the project, with a requirement that all development be transit-oriented and not interfere with Metro operations.

You can view more photos from the walking tour in this album.

* * *

Note: On Tuesday, April 28, 2015, from 5:00–8:00 p.m., the county Planning Department will host a community open house to discuss the transit district development plan for the county’s northern “downtown,” Prince George's Plaza. It will be at Prince George's Plaza Community Center, 6600 Adelphi Road, Hyattsville, MD 20782. Please attend if you can!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Smarter growth will expand Prince George's tax base

Capitol Heights Metro station is undeveloped. Image from WMATA.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to raise real property tax rates by 16% to increase funding to public schools. The real way to boost Prince George's economy is to develop around its gateway Metro stations near the DC line.

Prince George's is home to the lowest median home values and highest property tax rates in the region, largely because of the low home values in its older, deteriorating communities that border the District of Columbia. Seven of the county's 15 Metrorail stations are in these gateway neighborhoods, but they all are devoid of any substantial transit-oriented development (TOD).

Improving existing home values will strengthen the tax base

Like many other suburbs, Prince George's County has historically been a bedroom community. The county's largest source of tax revenue comes from real property taxes, and 61% of taxable real estate is residential property.

It stands to reason, then, that even small increases in existing home values in the county would go a long way to raise revenues even without any major large-scale development.

Currently, median home values in the five Prince George's county subdivision areas bordering the District of Columbia fall 10-31% below the countywide median value of $269,800. If existing home values in these areas simply rose to that level, the county's taxable real estate base would increase by approximately $2.47 billion. That would add approximately $23.7 million annually in revenue to the county.

Of course, if the county got serious about developing the seven Metro stations located in these struggling communities (Capitol Heights, Addison Road, Cheverly, Southern Avenue, Naylor Road, Suitland, and West Hyattsville), real property revenues would soar much higher than the median.

Undeveloped transit station areas undermine economic growth

Shockingly, Prince George's current General Plan doesn't recommend any substantial growth around six of the seven Metro stations near the DC border over the next 20 years. (The Suitland station, next to the U.S. Census Bureau, is the exception.) Indeed, the county's planners believe there are currently "too many" Metro stations in the county and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

More specifically, planners say that the six gateway Metro stations bordering DC, plus the four stand-alone MARC stations, plus all the planned stand-alone Purple Line stations should only account for 15% of the county's future growth in the next 20 years. That equates to fewer than 600 new housing units per transit station.

By contrast, the General Plan recommends putting 30-40% of the county's projected growth and development over the next 20 years—or up to 25,000 new housing units—far away from transit and mostly outside of the Beltway. This recommendation appears despite county-funded research that concludes that failing to focus on TOD puts the county "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors."

Prince George's has continually squandered opportunities to focus its attention on revitalizing its neighborhoods inside the Beltway. Continuing to encourage scattered development away from transit has crippled the county financially, environmentally, and aesthetically.

Gateway communities can't wait 20 more years to redevelop

Old Central Ave at Southern Ave SE. Image by author.
The close-in Prince George's neighborhoods and Metro station areas near the DC line are likely the first thing the region's current and prospective residents think about when determining whether they would like to live and work in the county.

Until Prince George's County improves its gateway neighborhoods, it will be difficult for it to attract the region's best and brightest. The county can't wait another 20 years for that transformation to happen.

County executive Baker is rightly concerned with diversifying the county's revenue base, creating more jobs, and expanding the county's commercial tax base. To that end, he has advocated strongly for developing the end-of-line Metro stations at the Beltway's edge.

For example, he's called for the FBI to relocate its headquarters to Greenbelt Metro, for the state housing agency to relocate to New Carrollton Metro, and for a new regional medical center to come to Largo Town Center.

Likewise, the General Plan's strategy to direct 50% of future growth to the seven largest Metro stations (including the three mentioned above) plus National Harbor, and to create three "downtowns" at Largo, New Carrollton, and Prince George's Plaza, is sensible.

Still, the county's economic development strategy should also reach beyond downtown, and deeper inside the Beltway, to the neighborhood Metro stations near the District's edge. Most of the new development that the General Plan currently contemplates for outer-Beltway suburbia should instead be directed to these gateway areas.

Prince George's County cannot simply tax itself out of its last-place position in the region. Instead, its leaders need to become better stewards of the public's trust and the public's resources. The county's transit-rich gateway neighborhoods are economic engines ready and waiting to be fired up, but county leaders have to ignite the switch.

Prince George's must get serious about revitalizing its old streetcar suburbs. These vital neighborhoods can't be left to languish for another generation.

(This article is cross-posted on Greater Greater Washington.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Prince George's Should Reform Its Government, Not Raise Its Taxes

Image from on Flickr
Since it already has the highest tax burden and the lowest wealth in the Washington region, it would be a bad idea for Prince George’s County to raise its property tax rates by 16%—even if it’s to increase funding to the school system. If Prince George’s really wants to secure more revenue over the long term, it should first focus on eliminating the corrupting influences in county government and restoring the public’s faith and trust.

Specifically, the county should establish an independent inspector general’s office, do away with the county council’s role in individual development review, create a public financing system for local elections, and include at-large seats on the county council.

Public trust is broken in Prince George’s

Image from BK on Flickr
Shortly after taking office in 2010, county executive Rushern Baker forthrightly acknowledged the need for county officials to restore public trust. The need was particularly acute in the wake of the odious corruption scandal that sent his predecessor, Jack Johnson, to federal prison for seven years.

Baker commissioned a blue-ribbon advisory board led by former Baltimore City mayor and renowned lawyer and higher education administrator Kurt Schmoke to issue recommendations for how the county could “provide transparent, open, and accountable services for its citizens.”

Schmoke’s advisory board issued a detailed report in June 2011, recommending a host of reforms, the most significant of which included establishing an independent inspector general’s office to investigate, publicly expose, and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse, as well as inefficiency and mismanagement by elected officials, county employees, and contractors. However, the county council blocked Baker’s efforts to establish the inspector general’s office.

Baker promised to redouble his efforts to enact ethics and transparency reforms in his second term, which began last December. Yet, shortly after he was re-inaugurated, one of his deputy administrators rhetorically unfurled a “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared that the county had magically “transitioned…to a place where it’s a trusted brand, where people expect good things to happen.”

Ironically, in what can only be described as an epic message fail, the administrator who made that lofty pronouncement, Victor Hoskins, promptly left his post after only six months in office to go head up Arlington County’s economic development office. Ouch!

The truth is that the ugly shadow of the Jack Johnson years still looms large over Prince George’s County, even now. People are still intensely mistrustful of the county government, and for good reason.

For example, many feel that Baker intentionally sandbagged the electorate when he reversed his stated opposition to gaming and instead supported construction of a billion dollar casino at National Harbor. Many feel the same way about Baker’s current effort to use a 2012 state law to circumvent the county’s charter cap on property taxes, known as TRIM.

The county council fares no better in the public’s eyes. Council chair Mel Franklin, for example, has evinced a bad habit of using legislative trickery to sneak through controversial, developer-friendly zoning bills at the last minute, evading public debate and opposition.

And last year, the council joined with Baker in a failed effort to push through a ballot measure to extend term limits in the county—a move funded heavily by developer interests, who sought to maintain their competitive political advantage by keeping their lasissez-faire friends in office longer.

County Council. Image from Prince George's County.
Likewise, the council refuses to halt its controversial practice of meddling with the county Planning Board’s (M–NCPPC) decisions on individual development proposals. Developers routinely cite this practice as a main reason they are apprehensive about doing business in the county. (Maryland’s highest court is currently reviewing a lower appellate court decision declaring the county council’s actions in this regard illegal.)

The county must institute bold reforms to restore public faith

Back in 2010, in the wake of the Jack Johnson debacle, everyone from the Washington Post to anonymous county employees was offering suggestions to Rushern Baker for ways Prince George’s could eliminate corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and structurally reform government. Here are my top four recommendations:

Image from OEA-OES on Flickr
  1. Establish an Independent Inspector General’s Office. This was a primary recommendation of the Schmoke panel that was quashed by the council in 2012. This council should stand up and allow the IG’s office to come to fruition. The council’s non-independent Office of Audits and Investigations, which was originally established in 1970, and the recently created Office of Ethics and Accountability, established as a compromise in 2012, should both be folded into and replaced by an independent IG’s office. The IG should serve a four-year term that overlaps with the council and county executive’s terms, such that the IG’s term expires at the midpoint of each council term and continues to the midpoint of the succeeding council’s term.
  2. Eliminate Council Review of Individual Development Applications. The courts may well take care of this item themselves, but if they don’t, the council should immediately extricate itself from the administrative review process relating to individual development applications. Any administrative appeals from the Planning Board’s decisions should be heard by the Board of Appeals, and any further review should take place in the courts. The council should confine itself to setting the general ground rules, as reflected in the Zoning and Subdivision ordinances, and then leave the administration of those rules to M–NCPPC.
    Image from Patrick Gensel on Flickr
  3. Establish a Public Financing System for Local Elections. Thanks to a recent amendment to state campaign finance law, counties may now establish a voluntary public financing system for local elections. Prince George’s should definitely do this, as Montgomery County has recently done. U.S. Supreme Court precedent prevents the imposition of a mandatory public campaign finance system, so it’s not a panacea. Nevertheless, such a system can help to reduce the influence of special interest money—particularly from developer interests—that has so tainted Prince George’s politics.
  4. Restructure the Council to Include At-Large Seats. Currently, the Prince George’s county council has 9 members, each of whom represents a single district of the county. Through informal features such as “council courtesy,” where council members often blindly defer to the wishes of the council member whose district is most impacted by a particular decision, council members each tend to be rulers of their own individual fiefs. There is no member of the legislature who is electorally accountable for being concerned with countywide interests. That can make it hard for the council to make hard policy choices that may be good for the whole county in the long term, but may appear to disadvantage a particular district’s parochial interests (such as preventing unconstrained sprawl development away from transit). To address this issue, Prince George’s should follow Montgomery County’s example and restructure its council so that it has 4 at-large seats and 5 district seats.
* * *

These suggested structural reforms will take hard work and political sacrifice to implement successfully—but over time, they will help to restore the public’s faith and trust in the Prince George’s County government. That, in turn, will foster more robust commercial investment and development in the county—thereby enabling it to bring in more revenue without raising taxes.

In the third and final segment in this #PGTaxes series of posts, I will discuss another, more concrete, strategy that the county can implement to raise more revenues over the long term without raising taxes.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Prince George's Doesn't Need Higher Taxes to Fund Its Schools

Prince George’s county executive Rushern Baker’s recent proposal to raise the county’s base real property tax rate by 16% has created quite a buzz among residents and the county council…kind of like the buzz that accompanies a plague of locusts.

Many citizens and even a state senator have expressed outrage over what they believe is Baker’s brazen and unlawful attempt to circumvent a voter-imposed property tax cap known as TRIM, which was added to the county’s charter in 1978 and which remains exceedingly popular among the electorate. Under TRIM, any property tax increase must be submitted to the voters for approval.

Prince George’s County already bears the heaviest property tax burden of any suburban jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan region, and it has the least to show for it. Yet, Baker argues that county residents should pay even more taxes next year, so that the county can fully fund the school district’s proposed FY 2016 budget, which requests an additional $133 million in county funding over the current year’s budget. That equates to a 21.1% increase in county funding to support a proposed 7.6% increase in the school district’s budget.

Baker is betting that his “let’s educate our children” argument will eventually persuade a wary public and council to support his move. But raising taxes to increase school funding isn’t the right move for Prince George’s County at this juncture.

High Tax Rate + Low Tax Base = A Bad Combination

In the chart linked below, I calculated “effective real property tax rates” for 10 county-equivalent jurisdictions in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, as well as for my hometown of Virginia Beach, VA. I also calculated values for each jurisdiction’s assessable tax base per capita and per household. (The methodology for these calculations is described in the endnotes on page 2 of the chart.)

Assessable Tax Bases and Rates in Metro DC. Click to download chart.

Prince George’s current effective tax rate is $1.377 per $100 of assessed value. That includes a $0.96 base rate, plus $0.112 in mandatory state assessments, plus $0.305 in mandatory assessments for two bi-county agencies operating in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties: the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M–NCPPC) and the Washington Suburban Transit Commission (WSTC).

The additional mandatory environmental fees that Prince George’s charges for stormwater and solid waste management and watershed restoration are not included in the effective rate, because those fees are not assessed based on property value. This is essentially another end-run around the TRIM property tax cap because, in most other jurisdictions, these types of environmental costs are typically paid for out of the general property taxes collected.

County executive Baker’s proposal would raise Prince George’s current base rate by $0.15, from $0.96 to $1.11. That’s a 16% increase, which would result in an effective tax rate of $1.527—by far the highest property tax rate in the region. By contrast, Montgomery County’s current effective rate is $1.120, which includes the mandatory state, M–NCPPC, and WSTC assessments. Arlington County’s current effective rate is only $0.996—the lowest in the region.

Although it is the wealthiest majority-black jurisdiction in the United States, Prince George’s has the lowest assessable tax base in the Washington region, whether measured on a per capita or per household basis. That’s because the county has the lowest property values in the region—values that have sunk even lower in recent years, in the wake of the Great Recession and the ensuing foreclosure crisis. Prince George’s also has the lowest median household income of any suburban jurisdiction in the Washington region.

As detailed in the chart linked below, Prince George’s County has the worst wealth-to-tax rate balance of any suburban jurisdiction in the region. (The District of Columbia technically has a heavier overall wealth-to-tax burden; however, it shifts the bulk of that burden onto commercial property owners, not homeowners. That makes it somewhat of an anomaly in the region.)

Wealth-to-Tax Balance Rankings. Click to download chart.

Rushern Baker’s proposed 16% increase in real property taxes would still leave Prince George’s County as the least wealthy jurisdiction in the region. Such an increase could also cause some residents to flee the county for neighboring jurisdictions, or dissuade others from moving into the county.

While there may well be occasions when the county may need to raise taxes for the greater good, even if it risks alienating some people, now is not one of those times.

More Money ≠ Better Schools

The county executive’s basic premise for proposing a tax increase—that the school system budget needs to be significantly increased to ensure educational success—is dubious at best. According to data compiled by the Maryland State Department of Education, Prince George’s already pays its teachers higher than the statewide and national averages, and has higher per-pupil expenditures than the statewide and national averages, ranking within the top third of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions in these areas.

The county’s overall education spending relative to its wealth is also well above the statewide averages. (Again, Prince George’s is not a “poor” county; it’s just not as wealthy as others in the Washington region.) So it can hardly be said that Prince George’s County is giving its public school students short shrift at its current funding levels.

Moreover, there are public school systems out there that are funded at much lower levels than Prince George’s, which nevertheless manage to perform exceptionally well. I am a product of one of those systems: the Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I use Virginia Beach as a comparator here because it has similar physical and wealth characteristics to Prince George’s County.

Both jurisdictions are geographically large bedroom communities, with similar population densities. They are both outside of and larger than their respective metropolitan region’s central city, and they are both principally suburban in character. Virginia Beach has a lower median household income and a slightly lower median home value.

As detailed in the chart linked below, Virginia Beach has a significantly lower per-pupil expenditure rate than Prince George’s and also pays its teachers significantly less. Yet, it has higher student achievement levels, a higher on-time graduation rate, and a lower dropout rate:

Comparison of Prince George's and Virginia Beach School Districts. Click to download chart.

Additionally, even though the Virginia Beach school system receives a much greater share of its overall budget from the local government, the city’s effective real property tax rates are still significantly lower than Prince George’s: $0.93 in Virginia Beach vs. $1.377 in Prince George’s.

Virginia Beach's city manager is proposing a $0.06 real estate tax increase in for FY2016—to maintain, not increase, the school system's current funding levels and other city service levels. But Unlike Prince George's, that proposed increase would still leave Virginia Beach with the lowest taxes in the Hampton Roads region.

Virginia Beach’s example demonstrates how and why Rushern Baker’s argument that Prince George’s County needs to dramatically increase its property tax rate to increase school funding rings quite hollow. At the very least, the county executive hasn’t articulated a compelling case for such an increase.

In a later post, I will discuss what Prince George’s County really needs to do to ensure greater revenues going forward. (Spoiler alert: it’s not raising taxes.)