Prince George’s Executive Rushern Baker visits Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE — Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker visited the area on Friday, March 17, and met with Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley and County Council President Ricky Travers. Executive Baker’s staff said that the visit was an effort to reach out and meet county and city officials, and learn more about the region.

In Prince George’s County, the title of County Executive is roughly similar to our County Manager position. Prince George’s County is the Maryland county that borders Washington, D.C., to the north and eastern sides. It has a land mass of 500 square miles and is home to approximately 900,000 residents.

Executive Baker is leading a success story in Prince George’s County, where both business and social conditions have been improving year after year. We asked him about county improvements and what it meant to him.

“We’re very pleased,” he told us. “I just submitted my sixth budget to the county council, and in this budget the deficit to the county is four million dollars. To put that into context, when I came into office we were at a $77 million dollar deficit; in 2014 we were at a $152 million deficit, and to have it now at $4 million it means that we’ve done a lot of things right in the county.

“When we first came in unemployment was high, our crime rate was high, our drop-out rate for our schools was high, and economic development was not happening in the county. A lot of that had to do with the fact that our county executive had just been arrested and sent to prison. We had all of these issues. So when we came in, we focused on all of these issues. The first thing we did was focus on ethical reforms, because we weren’t going to get businesses to come into Prince George’s County if they didn’t feel like they were getting a fair shake. So we instituted some of the strongest ethical reforms in the country. We brought in a new police chief and we focused on reducing crime, and we also looked at our public education system.

In Prince George’s County, the county executive has the ability to select a superintendent and members of the school board. Executive Baker points out that that fact was important, since changing and improving the school system was paramount in his plan. “Fast forward six years later,” he said, “and we’re reduced violet crime in the county by over 50 percent in the last six years. Our unemployment rate has been cut, from the highest unemployment rate we’ve seen in the county in 30 years. Thanks to the ACA, our uninsured rate has been cut, and now we’re building a new medical center.

The county now has between $8 and $9 billion dollars in development going on in all 500 square miles of Prince George’s County—there is not a place in the county where they are not seeing growth. Our graduation rates are the highest they’ve been on almost 30 years—we’re almost at 80 percent. The property values in Prince George’s County are rising, so we didn’t have to raise property taxes. Our values are rising because we’ve had businesses coming into the county. These great things are happening to the county because we are actually focusing on making the county better and targeting where our resources are.”

We asked Mr. Baker what his secret was, for getting results so quickly.

“I have this philosophy—one of my favorite quotes is from Teddy Roosevelt. He said, ‘In times of great crisis, the best thing to do is the right thing, the second best thing to do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing is to do nothing.’ So we had the attitude coming in that we were in a crisis and we needed to do something. We needed to look at ways to make the county better.

“So the first thing was to be strong. We put in strong legislation to weed out corruption. The second thing was to get really good men and women to come in and help run the government. And to let them do their job, regardless of whether they supported you for office or not. Get the best people possible, and let them do their jobs, and then push them.

“The other thing is to focus on the trouble areas. We developed a program that I think is going to revolutionize how government delivers services, and that’s been transforming neighborhoods. We took a serious look at where our most challenging neighborhoods are, and we focused on those areas like a laser beam—any extra resources we had in the county we shifted to those areas to turn them around. Because if we could turn those areas around, the entire county would be better. And because we’ve focused on those areas, and not just doing it for 30 days, or 60 days but sticking with it, some of those areas are where we’ve seen the greatest growth in the county.”

We asked about the County Executive’s role in Prince George’s.

“I really think my job as county executive is to look at what the county needs to elevate the quality of life and then do those things,” MR. Baker replied. “Whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s education, whether it’s changing neighborhoods or bringing in businesses. We made some really tough decisions in the early years. We made a decision that we were going to hold the line on expanding the government, and that we were going to ask every department to cut their department by ten to 15 percent. It was very difficult to do, because I asked to cut the departments but also keep up with the service delivery. We did a combination of early retirement, and not filling vacancies.

“That tactic worked to help get businesses to start looking at the county. We also cut regulations and streamlined our whole permitting process. This all helped us to expand our commercial tax base, which got us to the point now where we’re having eight or nine billion dollars worth of development going on in the county at one time.”

The latest major project Prince Georges County is working on is a bid to provide the location for the new FBI headquarters. Three locations for the new center are under consideration, and two of them are in Prince George’s County. Becoming the new home to the FBI is expected to bring 11,000 jobs into the county.

We asked Mr. Baker how do you package a message that here is a government that is working for your benefit?

“What I learned, when I came in was, you can’t just tell people that. You can’t just say, ‘We’re open for business,’ they’ve heard that before. What we had to do was go out and show them. I’ll give you a quick example—the business community. I said to them, ‘Look, we want you to come in and work with us in the county.’ They’ve heard that before,. The difference was, one, we put up money—we brought in incentives. The other thing is I’m willing to sit down with anybody, anywhere, fly anywhere, to tell them why they should come and do work in Prince George’s County.

“To confront the violent crime problem, we attacked it in a non-traditional way. Before I took office, the way people proposed to fight violent crime was to hire more police officers. And truly, in the county we needed more—and I approved that and in this latest budget that’s going to be one of the highest classes. But police respond after a crime has been committed. The way we attacked violent crime was in my Transforming Neighborhoods initiatives. We went in there and said, ‘Okay, where are these things happening at a disproportionate rate? And what else is it impacting?’

“And when we looked at the numbers, those were the areas where you saw the highest drop-out rates in our high schools. But we also saw the highest number of middle schools that were not being promoted up. So our education system was part of it. These were also areas where they were a lot of people with no health insurance—so people did not get the health care they needed, and in poor health they would fall behind and drop out.

“These were also areas where there really wasn’t a lot of economic development activity going on. So our approach to reducing violent crime was one, to train police officers and hire more, but also to activate those wrap-around services so we got to people before they actually committed crimes. In the second year of this program Prince George’s County cut its homicide rate by 33 percent, one of the highest reductions anywhere in the nation.”

The question arose about what all this had to do with Cambridge, and it was pointed out by his staff that to understand Maryland one had to understand the Eastern Shore as well.

“I just talk to the mayor, and I was pleased to talk to her about Cambridge. I haven’t been here in a long time, and it’s a beautiful place. We talked about some of the issues, and the mayor pointed out that Prince George’s County was 500 square miles and an urban center. Which is true, but we’re also urban, suburban and rural. The same sort of hurdles we faced in the county are here in Cambridge and need to be paid attention to.

“Cambridge is a lot like being in parts of Prince George’s County, and that’s why I’m excited about being here. You have Salisbury State University for education, and Chesapeake College which is phenomenal, we use our higher education to help drive our K-12 education. I understand your issues concerning roads and bridges, and yet you have something here that we don’t have enough of, and that’s a great waterway.

“I think the message is that we’re pretty much all the same, and I think that there’s some things that we can do together to help Cambridge and Prince George’s County.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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