In his latest $2.7 billion budget plan, Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker has proposed five furlough days for most of the county's 6,000 employees. That has raised eyebrows because Baker had specifically criticized his predecessor for sending employees home without pay to balance his budget, and in fact even promised not to do the same.
With former County Executive Jack Johnson (then under indictment on federal bribery and corruption charges) sitting just feet away, Baker promised a clean sweep of county government, including an end to furloughs, when he was sworn into office in December 2010.
Prince George's is currently facing a $152 million budget gap, and the federal sequester could force local governments throughout the Washington region to make steep cutbacks. Baker could make the case that current financial realities give him little choice but to break his own promise -- except that his budget also includes pay raises for the same employees he wants to send home.
So even after being furloughed, county employees' paychecks would still be 1.5 percent fatter, which is why none of them is squawking. This amounts to a week's paid vacation on the taxpayers' dime. The furloughs would diminish only the level of service available to taxpayers, not employees' bottom line.
Since employee salaries and pensions are one of the largest devourers of tax dollars in local government, furloughs give the illusion that government employees are suffering at the same level of austerity as citizens who pay the bill. To his credit, Baker resisted the temptation for two years. But not now.
Total spending in Prince George's has grown by almost $1 billion in the past decade alone. The county's fiscal 2003 budget was $1.7 billion, and spending has steadily ratcheted up by hundreds of millions of dollars every year since. Baker's fiscal 2013 budget is $933 million larger than the county's budget 10 years ago, and $45 million larger than it was in 2011, his first year in office. Even with the county still reeling from the highest foreclosure rate in the region, there have been no real budget cuts on Baker's watch.
The fake furloughs are even more obvious when one considers that the county executive also wants to increase spending in some areas, including $27 million for a new police headquarters off Pennsylvania Avenue. Baker claims this is his "toughest budget year yet," but that's only because he has fewer extra tax dollars to spread around.