More than 100 Laurel, College Park, Adelphi, Beltsville and Calverton residents packed a District 1 town hall meeting this week, demanding answers about development, water rates and infrastructure from Prince George's County officials.
Councilwoman Mary A. Lehman (D-Dist. 1) organized the meeting Wednesday night in Beltsville that included County Executive Rushern Baker and officials from county agencies.
Residents peppered officials with questions about the approval of environmentally hazardous developments, increasing Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) rates, funding for infrastructure on county roadways and over-development in rural areas.
Lehman presented the crowd with a roundup of what was accomplished in the county for the 2012 fiscal year budget, including $2.5 million for a Laurel Library, funding for a new High Point High School, and $250,000 for Laurel Dinosaur Park.
But residents came armed with questions. One wanted to know why WSSC was increasing rates by more than 8 percent.
Baker and Lehman said that from 1999 to 2004, there were no hikes in rates at WSSC and that kept repairs from being made to the system’s infrastructure.
“We’ve ignored the infrastructure and now it’s caught up with us,” Baker said. “We are in a rock and a hard place at WSSC.”
Melissa Daston, president of the West Laurel Civic Association, implored Baker to ensure there is greater transparency within the county government, particularly with zoning and developments. West Laurel residents are of a Seventh-Day Adventist church in their community that they say would harm the environment and infrastructure.
“We’re still not being very good at transparency,” she said. “I want to challenge you, Sir, for bringing in full transparency.”
Crystal Thompson of Laurel wanted to know if cuts were going to be made to bus routes that go through Laurel, and if the county council or executive could help feed public school students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“We have kids that are hungry,” she said. “Would you be willing to commit to free breakfast and lunch?”
Lehman said costs ultimately determine what Prince George’s County Schools are able to do.
“It’s not a bad idea but everything has a price tag,” she said.
Still, most residents pressed for answers about smaller neighborhood developments and zoning issues.
Residents from Adelphi wanted to block a looming drug store development near Riggs Road; Calverton residents wanted stronger citation of homeowners turning single family homes into apartment buildings.
Baker and Lehman conceded that there needs to be a greater sense of urgency within county government to address residents' concerns and pledged to follow up on issues raised during the meeting.
"Change, unfortunately, comes slowly," Lehman said.
Baker said, above all, the county needs to move forward in diversifying its tax base from residential to commercial developments.
"If we don't start diversifying, we're going to be taxed out," he said. "We need to make sure economic growth spreads throughout the county."