After the rough-and-tumble Republican primary for Anne Arundel County executive this spring, the general election has proved a relatively low-key affair pitting the affable former sheriff, Democrat George Johnson, against a successful businessman and state delegate, Republican Steve Schuh. Mr. Johnson is well known to voters of the county from his long career in public service, and he would certainly be an able county executive. Nonetheless, we endorse Mr. Schuh on the strength of his vision for Anne Arundel County.
In many respects, the views of Messrs. Johnson and Schuh are similar. Both see an urgent need to invest in a public safety system the believe suffered from underfunding and understaffing during the administration of former County Executive John Leopold. Both see a need to capitalize on the county's assets such as the NSA, Fort Meade and Baltimore-Washington International Airport to foster economic development. Both recognize the importance of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay to a county with so much shoreline. Mr. Johnson supports the state-mandated stormwater management fee that funds bay cleanup efforts; Mr. Schuh opposes it, though he says he would not try to repeal it and supports the projects and goals of the program.
There are two major points of disagreement between them related to taxes and school construction. Mr. Johnson has sought to portray Mr. Schuh's views on those matters as reckless, but during his career in public service, we have found him to be anything but.
Mr. Schuh believes that a long-term reduction in the tax and fee burden on Arundel residents is a necessary component to his plan to make the county a better place to live. We have not historically been of the view that Anne Arundel's taxes were excessive; in fact, we have consistently supported what increases in the rate are allowed by the county's strict property tax cap, which generally limits annual increases in tax collections to the rate of inflation. Fees there are another matter, as there is some indication that they have become out of whack with surrounding counties, to some degree as a back-door measure by county government over the years to cope with the restraint imposed by the tax cap.
Mr. Schuh is promising that he will include a 3 percent property tax cut in his first budget. Mr. Johnson says that is unaffordable, particularly given Mr. Schuh's other promises, for example to increase the size and compensation of the police department. But 3 percent amounts to about $18 million in a $1.3 billion budget. Though such a cut would not necessarily be our top priority, we recognize that many (if not most) Arundel voters might feel otherwise, and such an amount is certainly manageable in a growing economy.
And that's the key to Mr. Schuh's fiscal plans: encouraging economic growth. New development falls outside of the tax cap, and provided that Mr. Schuh can foster economic growth, his plans should work. And this is where Mr. Schuh's background and good sense are important. He is a self-made man with a background in finance and as an entrepreneur — he owns a variety of successful businesses, primarily restaurants. He also has emerged during the last eight years as one of the sharpest fiscal minds from either party in Annapolis. He is not some wild-eyed Maryland version of Sam Brownback, the Kansas governor who slashed taxes so deeply that the state's economy tanked and its credit was downgraded. Mr. Schuh can be trusted, above all, to do the math. He is not one to indulge in faith-based budgeting, and we believe him when he says he favors a gradual approach that leaves plenty of room for adjustment along the way.
The same goes for his desire to gradually shift the county from a model of a few large high schools to one with more smaller ones, his other major point of contention with Mr. Johnson. It's an idea that stems from his time studying education policy at Johns Hopkins University and one he believes will help make the county's school system better and thus more attractive to families. Mr. Johnson says that, too, is unaffordable, but Mr. Schuh makes a compelling case otherwise based on the experience of other counties. And in any case, it's a change that would take place over decades. If it proves unwise, there is plenty of time for a change of course.