County exec Baker addresses proposed fire commission changes, county's image at West Laurel Civic Association meeting

November 01, 2011|By Clara Vaughn

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III attended West Laurel Civic Association's fall meeting Oct. 27, the first time a county executive has visited a WLCA meeting.

Baker's appearance was "a historical event for us. We have never had a county executive out here," WLCA press relations officer Beth Evans said.

Hot topics discussed at the fall meeting included the restructuring of the Prince George's County fire commission, the county's need for a revamped image and the quality of service of Laurel Regional Hospital.

Approximately 25 firefighters attended the meeting in uniform and distributed pamphlets explaining their opposition to the Fire Protection Oversight Bill.

If passed, the bill would overhaul the structure of Prince George's County's fire commission. Now, the commission consists of nine representatives elected by its volunteer fire departments. The bill would replace these with three volunteer representatives, three career staff representatives and three county citizen representatives.

The fire chief would control funding, currently handled by the commission, with the commission acting as an advisory panel.

Prince George's County has about twice as many volunteer as paid firefighters and several citizens, including WLCA President Melissa Daston, voiced concerns about the effects the bill would have.

"I think it's a legitimate question to ask, 'is our service going to be impacted?' " Daston said.

"The answer is no," Baker said, but others at the meeting expressed doubts.

"It sounds to me as though you're removing checks and balances," a West Laurel resident said.

Baker said changes need to be made because some commissioners live outside of Prince George's County, and there have been issues with how members are selected.

Because of the strong backlash against the bill, the decision-making process was slowed and options are still being considered, Baker said.

Baker invited commissioners, volunteer firefighters and anyone else to come to his office to discuss the bill.

Lehman also voices concerns

Transportation and infrastructure issues were also key topics at Thursday's meeting.

Residents' concerns ranged from speeding in West Laurel to congestion on Interstate 95 and the need for more public transportation options.

With limited funds, spending must focus on revitalizing existing communities, said County Council member Mary Lehman, a West Laurel resident who was also invited to speak at the meeting. She called for development near established neighborhoods, including walking and biking trails to increase sustainability.

Daston expressed concern that Prince George's County "is like a lot of areas in the United States — it's lost value."

"The word 'Prince George's County' has a connotation," she said. People "are reluctant to move here."

"The district is building up and we're losing out," Lehman said about the County.

Baker stood from his seat to address the room: "I think it's a great time for us … because we have the potential to grow."

As people are drawn to the metro area during the recession, Prince George's County needs to find ways to also attract newcomers, Baker said.

An area's public school system and public safety are major factors determining its image, and an extra $14 million was allocated to improving Prince George's test scores and the county is at a 35-year low in crime, Baker said.

"People are starting to look at us differently," he said, followed by applause from the room.

Some residents at the meeting also expressed concern about the quality of service at Laurel Regional Hospital.

"The quality of Laurel Hospital has become very substandard and after 15 years (of officials failing to fulfill promises to improve the hospital)… the residents are frustrated," Daston said.

Baker said both state and county dollars are being used to fix the county's hospitals.

There is a big push to open a new health center in central Prince George's County, which will work in conjunction with the University of Maryland Medical System, Evans said.

Specific plans for Laurel Regional Hospital were not discussed.

Residents also raised the ongoing issue of rezoning for Reaching Hearts Church, which is planning to build a church on land it owns in West Laurel, but Daston declined to comment because it is tabled in court, she said.

The WLCA membership went on the record saying it does not endorse any further expansion of the church, but supports the church's master plan to build within the guidelines.

Given time constraints, many citizens were unable to voice their concerns. Some felt enough time was not allocated to discussing the fire department, given the large showing of volunteer firefighters and supporters.

"You didn't give them a fair shake," one of the people attending with the firefighters said following the meeting.

The West Laurel Civic Association is an all-volunteer organization. All of West Laurel's approximately 1,700 citizens are "members," though only 455 households have paid their $15 dues this year, up from less than 400 paying members last year, Daston said.

Some WCLA officials hope Baker's visit marked a new awareness of West Laurel among county executives and heads of agencies.

"It's a big thing," Evans said of Baker's attendance.

"We want him to realize we're here and make occasional nods to us," she said.

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