The County Council on Tuesday voted in support of the county executive's plan to increase property taxes. The 5-3 vote, with one abstention, backs Jack Johnson's request that the General Assembly change the formula used to calculate property tax increases.
The county is facing an unprecedented budget shortfall. It has imposed a hiring freeze and required all its workers to take two weeks of unpaid leave this year.
Johnson told the council that without additional revenue, the county would have to lay off hundreds of employees, including police officers.
Delegate Tawanna P. Gaines, D-Prince George's, said the bill will be a hard sell in the legislature.
There is "not a lot of appetite to increase taxes at this time. Prince George's has the highest rate of foreclosure in the state. People are having a hard enough time as it is," she said.
But Johnson told the council that the county's budget shortfall would get worse without the added revenue from a change in the property tax formula. "The failure to act would be calamitous," he said.
The county is struggling with a $102 million gap in its budget for fiscal 2010, which begins July 1. If the state does not approve the legislation, Johnson said he would have to cut $12 million from the police department and no less than $82 million from the Board of Education.
Last week, Johnson asked the members of the county delegation to back a bill that would change the property tax formula. Under state law, property taxes can't increase by more than 10 percent each year; each county or city sets its own rate. The tax can't go up by more than 5 percent over the previous year in Prince George's.
The bill would permit property taxes to rise by 10 percent during fiscal 2009 and 2010. A taxpayer with a home assessed at $250,000 would pay about $120 more a year in taxes, letting the county raise $53 million over two fiscal years, county officials said.
The council also agreed to consider a multi-year lease for new office space for Housing Department employees, a move that could cost nearly $11 million over 10 years.
State lawmakers said they did not understand how county officials could ask them to authorize a tax increase while council members consider such spending proposals.
"I'm confused, I don't see how you can continue to spend when you are facing a deficit," Gaines said.
Johnson hopes the council endorsement would encourage state lawmakers to pass the property tax measure. But Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George's, said Wednesday that she remains opposed.
"I have to listen to my constituents," Howard said. "And everyone that I talk to says no. Sometimes you have to live within your means."