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.
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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.


  1. It is hard to read this post and not feel that someone is asleep at the wheel. I am undecided about the need for new taxes to fund the public education system here in Prince George's County, however Mr. Heard's post does not speak at all to this fundamental issue. Instead he plays fast and loose and uses misdirection to speak to other, albeit worth wild areas.

    Secondly this post talks about four solutions that are....interesting at least.

    1) The council never block the CE's Inspector General proposal. He never made on and instead just blamed the council for not living up to this promise. There is a way to have both a County IE and the council's Internal Audit program but it does require the CE to actually work with the council to make it happen.

    2) Prince Georgian's expect our council to weigh in on individual development projects, specifically those that have great concern for local communities.

    3) In a county that is spending far more money than we are taking in it would be interesting to see if county voters would support public financing for local elections, something I doubt.

    4) In case Mr. Heard forgot or maybe never knew but voters have already answered the question about At-Large seats in Prince George's, we don't want or need them. It is interesting this post Mr. Heard slaps Mr. Baker and the council for seeking to go around voters will on term-limits but then suggests going around voters on At-Large seats.

    1. Joseph -

      Always good to hear from you on the blog!. Part 1 of this 3-part series actually talked more in detail about the lack of a sound justification for the tax increase proposal. This post was more about good government reforms that I believe the county needs to make.

      On #2 - I think the way council members should weigh in on development proposals is to testify at the Planning Board hearing, like the rest of the public. That's pretty much the way it works almost everywhere else in Maryland. (Not sure about MoCo.) On #3 - I agree, we'd have to see how the math works for the public financing of local elections. MoCo just recently passed their law, and I believe it's the first one in the state, but PGC should take a look at this. On #4 - I never suggested we bypass the voters on the at-large member question. It would take a charter amendment to do it, so the voters would have to weigh in. I've heard many in the county who support having some at-large representatives (not a total at-large council, like we had in the past).

  2. Again thank you for responding and this blog post. I do however feel you dodge the issue again.

    1) In this post nor your first post do you deal directly with the main issue. The County Executive has proposed raising taxes to fund his Stragetic Plan for Education. The answer or response to that is this, Yes raise the taxes because the plan will move our system forward and there aren't other options to get the money needed, No this plan will not reap the benefits the Executive promises thus this will not be money well spent, or No this plan is a good idea and should happen but the Executive does not need a tax increase to get to this plan.

    2) Members in this community have over and over again made it clear that the role the council plays in their District Council power is a just role. The council has made adjustments to change the role in a method to be more development friendly but overall this has been judged by voters to be just use of their time and power.

    3) We don't have a financing problem here in this county when it comes to local elections. Members are winning seats on the county council with 70,000 and in the House of Delegates by raising 30,000. That is not a lot of money.

    4) You are very critical of the role the council played to extended term limits (something via the Charter Review Commission they kinda have to do) but then suggest they amend the charter to get the makeup that you want. This is not the first time for this issue and voters and leaders have said no and for good reason. In this county officials countywide are elected by few people and so would At-Large members. It would give an unfair advantage to specific areas of the county at the risk of other areas as we saw when our school board had at-large representation, Bowie had three members of the board from one voting district. In Montgomery County where they now have at-large members, two of those at-large members live in the same part of the county. In DC until Vince Gray and Kwame Brown left the council, there was a time that Gray, Brown and the Ward 7 member all lived in the same NEIGHBORHOOD.

    1. 1) I guess I lean toward the second of your options: No, this won't reap the benefits the CE promises.

      2) I think you'd be surprised at how many in the community support ending council involvement in zoning administration. (BTW, I did check MoCo's Ordinance, and their council isn't involved in development review either. They only are involved if amending the zoning map or the zoning text is necessary - which is what I'm arguing for here in PGC.)

      3) It's not the amount of $$, it's the source. Candidates are awash in developer money, and that's not a good thing.

      4) If at-large members get elected from only certain parts of the county, it's likely because the other parts of the county didn't turn out to vote. It's not pre-ordained. At some point, we are responsible for the government we elect.