When Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman unveiled her proposed $1.35 billion county budget on Thursday, she described it as a package that reduced the county's property tax rate "without cutting essential services or depleting our savings."
But in a political year that has already seen sharp barbs between Neuman and her opponent for the Republican nomination for county executive, Del. Steve Schuh, the tax rate issue immediately drew a rebuke from Schuh, who called the cut "inadequate and misleading."
Neuman's proposed budget decreases the property tax rate from 95 cents per $100 of assessed value to 94.3 cents. Under Neuman's proposal, the local income tax remains 2.56 percent and water, sewer and trash fees are not increased.
The cut in the property tax rate was required under Anne Arundel's voter-imposed property tax cap. The tax cap limits the total amount of money from property taxes to a 4.5 percent increase or the rate of inflation.
Because of new construction and increased home values, the county had to reduce the tax rate so the total amount didn't exceed the limits of the cap, said John Hammond, the county's budget officer.
"We are doing exactly what the voters said to do," Hammond told members of the County Council.
Schuh said that "Ms. Neuman's property tax cut is inadequate and misleading. … All she has done is comply with the requirement of the tax cap." Schuh has advocated for a 3-cent cut to the rate.
But that drew a response from Neuman, who countered, "There doesn't appear to be any record of Steve Schuh providing a tax cut. In fact, he has voted for 14 tax increases."
Even with the slightly lower tax rate, the total amount of money collected from property taxes will increase by 3.3 percent, Hammond said.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, called Neuman's choice not to cut taxes further "progressive," and he was "ecstatic she's chosen to maximize spending."
The county government is benefiting from an improving economy that's also causing other sources of income to increase, including local income tax and recordation and transfer taxes.
Neuman called the budget proposal fiscally conservative, and said "while saving taxpayers money, we are stabilizing county government."
A few years ago, the county shifted money around and drained an account for paying retiree benefits to balance the budget. Now there's money to fund many projects while rebuilding reserve funds and setting aside money for retiree benefits, noted County Councilman Daryl Jones.
"You don't have all the factions going after a smaller pot," he said.
"Things are starting to look good," said Councilman Derek Fink, a Republican from Pasadena. "I think that's a sign of the times. The ship has turned around."
Neuman is proposing funding a variety of programs through the operating budget and a $224.2 million capital budget, including:
Hiring 20 police officers and eight firefighters.
$708,000 to begin planning for a replacement police training academy.
$11.9 million technology upgrades throughout county government.
Renovating or rebuilding several schools, including $50 million in continued funding for Severna Park High School.
The schools section of the budget does not include funding for more teachers or $5.8 million in operating costs needed to open the Monarch contract school in west Anne Arundel County, school officials said.
Interim schools Superintendent Mamie J. Perkins said she and her staff will scrutinize the proposal to see if there's a way to fund more of the school system's requests.
"I certainly recognize we can't possibly get everything," Perkins said.
Council members found little to complain about in the budget proposal. Council Chairman John Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, said Neuman "hit all the bases" with her budget.
Councilman Dick Ladd, a Broadneck Republican, was "delighted" to see continued funding for Severna Park High School, while Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, liked the school projects in his district and additional money for libraries.
Councilman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican, approved of the property tax cut and emphasis on improving technology.
The County Council must approve the budget, but has a limited ability to make changes. The council will hold budget meetings with county department leaders throughout the month. There also will be two public hearings on the budget: Thursday at 7 p.m. at North County High School in Ferndale and May 12 at 7 p.m. at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.
Neuman also will present a State of the County address to the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce and other business groups Monday. That event is sold out.