Council, executive clash over development in P.G.

Local,Maryland,Ben Giles
Rushern Baker's first major initiative as Prince George's County executive, a massive economic development incentive fund, has stalled as Baker and the county council clash over whether the millions of dollars the county may shell out to developers need more oversight or more flexibility.

Council members want a more powerful compliance board, the ability to review grants and loans in excess of $250,000, and a 60-day review process to consider financial assistance for businesses Prince George's officials are courting.

Baker's staff called those demands "cumbersome," and the executive asked the council to shelve a bill establishing the fund while officials spend the summer hammering out their differences.

The delay was a defeat for the Baker administration, which had pushed to have the bill passed before the council's summer recess begins July 18. The incentive fund would provide $50 million for attracting new businesses to Prince George's and for retaining home-grown businesses looking for more attractive offers, such as those from neighboring Montgomery County, which has a fund of its own.

"We're the only county that doesn't have a fund that allows us to compete to retain and attract jobs," said David Iannucci, who works on Baker's economic development team.

Without the fund, Prince George's is stuck fighting for businesses in a competitive region "with one hand tied behind our back," he said.

The council seemed poised to pass the bill on Monday, but several amendments added the night before led Baker to call off the vote.

"They were happy with the bill on Friday, but all the council members weren't," said Chairwoman Ingrid Turner, D-Bowie. "We support this bill, we just want to make sure we get it right."

The amendments would have rendered the fund ineffective and incapable of accomplishing its goals of attracting new development and broadening the county's tax base, Iannucci said.

In light of recent guilty pleas entered by former County Executive Jack Johnson and local businessmen in a widespread pay-to-play developer scandal, Baker's economic team says they're sympathetic to the council's concerns of the fund being abused.

However, Baker is not Johnson, Iannucci said.

"It's a different administration. The bill was drafted largely consistent with the types of setups other counties have," Iannucci said. "Every year the executive would have to go back to county council for appropriations. If we acted up, we'd be torpedoing the program."

Montgomery County has $2.9 million set aside for luring businesses, with another $2 million set aside for discount retailer Costco in fiscal 2013. A similar fund for the entire state of Maryland is worth $70 million, just $20 million more than what Baker has proposed for Prince George's.

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