County Executive Steuart Pittman knows some of his constituents are going to balk at his request to raise the property tax rate and the income tax rate, but during his budget address on May 1, he said those changes create a necessary solution to meet the growing needs of Anne Arundel County.
During his Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) budget address at the Arundel Center, he called for those sacrifices in order to meet a slew of needs.
The county generated $53 million in new revenue for FY2020, but with $45 million of that amount dedicated to pensions and debt service, only $8 million remains for unmet needs. The total operating budget is $1.7 billion.
“As we grew from a rural to a suburban county, our elected officials lacked the courage to budget for the future,” Pittman said. “We turned our backs as school class sizes grew to unacceptable levels, teacher morale declined and our school construction backlog reached $2 billion. We turned our backs as call volume for fire and [emergency medical services] grew 7% annually. We turned our backs as police officers were forced to work 12-hour shifts. We turned our backs as acres of trees were cut down and sediment from uninspected construction sites flowed into our creeks and rivers.”
A 2012 law passed by the Maryland General Assembly allows county governments to set a property tax rate that is higher than the rate authorized under the county’s charter if the purpose is to fund requests made by that jurisdiction’s board of education. Citing that law, Pittman asked to bypass Anne Arundel County’s voter-imposed property tax cap and raise the property tax rate.
He suggested bumping the property tax rate from the current 90.2 cents per $100 of assessed value to 93.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.
“There are only four Maryland counties with lower property tax rates than ours and all of them are rural counties where development has not pushed up the demand for services,” Pittman said.
The hike will give the county $26.6 million in additional revenue to be used for education.
“The idea of going through the revenue cap made me uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable until I saw a chart showing the four times that politicians decided to lower the ceiling for future years by setting rates lower than the cap,” Pittman said. “… For those who worry about losing our low-tax status, fear not. We will retain our ranking of fifth lowest in the state, far below the $1 or more paid by residents of all the other big eight counties.”
Pittman’s budget also pushes the income tax rate from 2.5% to 2.81%, which would result in an additional $28.6 million in FY2020.
After speaking about taxes, Pittman showed that education is a priority of his administration.
His budget adds 136 classroom teachers — 26 to keep up with projected enrollment and 110 to reduce class sizes. Also included are 27 new positions for mental health needs, including 14 school counselors, six psychologists, six social workers and one pupil personnel worker. Forty-seven special education positions are also added.
To the applause of many attendees, Pittman said he would fully fund teacher compensation packages outlined by Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto and the Board of Education.
“When [teachers] said that they need to paid more, it’s not because they are greedy; it’s because they want to keep doing what they are doing,” Pittman said. “They don’t want to leave for a better job in another county. They want to keep teaching our kids, and as a parent, I can say that I want them to stay.”
Pittman also announced plans to earmark $3 million for staff pay increases at Anne Arundel Community College and $544,000 to make Discoveries: The Library at the Mall a permanent branch at Westfield Annapolis.
In the realm of public safety, Pittman asked for 10 police officers, 35 firefighters, 13 positions to staff the soon-to-open central booking facility in Annapolis, one deputy sheriff and the replacement of a 15-year-old police helicopter.
Pittman wants to add five inspectors to help handle “triple the erosion and sediment control workload of the next busiest county in the state.” Six new planners and a deputy director at the Office of Planning and Zoning would help the county manage smart growth.
“When County Executive Janet Owens was doing 16 Small Area Plans back in the early 2000s, there were 20 planners involved,” Pittman said. “Today, we have four. Clearly we have a problem.”
Whereas former Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and the county council paid for large capital projects with a program that used 30-year bond financing instead of previously used 20-year bond financing, Pittman wants to adopt a reserve fund for permanent public improvements: a model that Jamie Benoit tried to pass in 2014 while he was on the county council.
“Money in the fund is used to sell bonds to finance new projects, but, of course, we need a revenue source to make payments,” Pittman said.
The county executive plans to add one-third of the new income tax revenue to the fund starting in Fiscal Year 2021.
Councilman Nathan Volke, a Republican from Pasadena, argued that the county should not be raising taxes to pay for capital projects.
“This budget signifies not the end, but the start, of future tax increases,” Volke said in a column written for the Voice. “If this budget passes, and the economy slows down in the next few years like experts predict, what happens? More tax increases to balance the budget.”
Before his budget announcement ended, Pittman talked about the need for affordable housing and assisting people plagued by poverty.
Pittman also urged the seven county council members to make their mark on the budget over the 45-day deliberation period.
“If you oppose the increased revenue, offer some cuts,” he told them. “If you can find some savings, take it. If you want something added, fight for it. If we made a mistake, fix it.”
As for the taxpayers, Pittman hopes they find his budget to be fiscally responsible and not just an overreaching hand of government.
“I believe that when communities confront problems, they should use every tool in the box, whether it’s one offered by the marketplace, the nonprofit sector or the government,” Pittman said. “I also believe very strongly that when government spends money, it should be honest with its taxpayers. We should pay our bills just like we do at home.”