Democrats and Republicans on the county council both saw County Executive Steuart Pittman’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal as the spark that would ignite a transformation in Anne Arundel County.
So why was there a problem? Democrats saw that transformation as a boon for county agencies and services that have been underfunded since the recession of 2008 and 2009. Republicans saw the transformation as an obstacle that would force burdensome tax increases on county residents.
The Democratic majority prevailed on June 14, passing by 4-3 vote a $1.7 billion budget nearly identical to the one Pittman proposed on May 1.
“I think the voters said in 2018 that we want a new budget that sets a new normal that does things like restore and increase our fire coverage, and supports our police department and our other public safety components, and also provides overall for what they, the majority of voters, felt would be an excellent investment in improving the quality of life for most people in this county,” said Sarah Lacey, a Democrat who represents the northern part of Anne Arundel County in District 1.
The budget included upgrades lauded by both parties. Board of Education funding for FY2020 jumped $87.2 million when paired with money from the state Blueprint for Education bill ($46 million of the $87.2 million will come from the county). The budget provides raises for educators and adds 140 new classroom teachers, 50 special education positions and 35 mental health positions.
The council added 15 firefighter positions to Pittman’s recommendation of 35 for a total of 50. Also included was funding for 10 new officers and for 13 detention officers to staff the new central booking facility in Annapolis.
Four new environmental inspectors, six new planners and one park ranger will be hired as a result of the budget.
Republicans argued that the investments came at a hefty cost. The property tax rate will rise from 90.2 cents per $100 of assessed value to 93.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. County residents will pay 2.81% in income taxes instead of 2.5%.
Councilman Nathan Volke, a Republican from District 3 in Pasadena, said he was proud to support more police officers, firefighters and teachers, but that upgrades should be incremental improvements, without all upgrades coming in one budget.
“There can be no doubt that increasing government spending by 7% in one fiscal year is new territory for Anne Arundel County,” Volke said. “There can be no doubt that increasing taxes for the average family by over $550 a year in one budget is a turning point for this county. And there can be no doubt that increasing the budget by $106 million in a single year creates a new normal of government spending for Anne Arundel County.”
District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fielder agreed with Volke. Along with Jessica Haire, a Republican from District 7, they suggested 58 amendments that would have cut $20 million from the operating budget without removing a single teacher, police or firefighter position.
“This budget is essentially unchanged from what the county executive proposed on May 1 despite my best efforts and the efforts of my colleagues to address those concerns,” Fiedler said. “It is my opinion that this budget is just simply too large.”
As Republicans argued that the budget was “simply too large,” Democrats said the investments were necessary after years of underfunding.
“The spending in the county has been so short, has been so curt, that we have dug ourselves a hole that now we are charged with bringing ourselves out of,” said District 6 Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien.
She doesn’t expect the tax rates to hinder Anne Arundel County, which will have the fourth-lowest income tax rate in Maryland and the fifth-lowest property tax rate out of 24 jurisdictions.
“We are not moving to the tax capital of the state,” Rodvien said. “We are still very modest with respect to our taxes and I think that leaves us in a very good positon to be proud of this budget. We’re making very well-needed, very important investments without having to break the bank.”
Pittman was pleased with the council’s efforts.
“This budget is a much needed correction to years of kicking the can down the road,” Pittman said in a statement. “We have done what our county charter directs us to do — determine the needs of our county and set tax rates that balance the budget – and we have done it in a fiscally responsible way.”
The budget takes effect July 1.
Read the July edition of the Voice for a more detailed summary of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.