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Anne Arundel budget hearing set for Wednesday, online portal for testimony open until 9 a.m.

Budget hearings in the digitally-forced time of the coronavirus look a little different: Instead of jamming into Anne Arundel County Council chambers on Wednesday evening to voice their opinions and concerns, residents will have to take their concerns online.

Commenters have until 9 a.m. on Wednesday to submit written testimony online and then can tune in at 6 p.m. the same day to listen to it be read into the record by the council administrator.

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Budget Officer Jim Beauchamp will give a presentation and then the County Council will hear testimony from county leaders, including Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent George Arlotto; School board President Michelle Corkadel; the teachers’ union and the library and then they will hear all the public testimony on the $1.72 billion budget. The hearing will be broadcast on Arundel TV, streamed online via government television, and residents can also call in to listen.

County Executive Steuart Pittman’s budget puts an emphasis on health and human services despite a hiring freeze put in place to cope with the slashed revenues due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Working with about $63 million less than they expected, Pittman said he had to make tough decisions on what to fund.

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He prioritized funding the Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice; staffing the Wellmobile, a preventative care effort; a new position to manage the Opioid Intervention Team and Gun Violence Intervention Team; and implementing a new position for the Resident Access to a Coalition of Health program, which connects residents to discount or volunteer medical providers.

The proposed budget also includes funding certain initiatives that were widely called for during the January budget town halls, including raises for school health staff and a new position for Animal Care and Control.

And though school nurses are getting a raise, the Board of Education budget is funded to a lower level than Pittman had expected. He’s proposed step raises for teachers, but no back steps as had been his plan, and overall is only adding about $14.8 million increase — the maintenance of effort amount required by state law. Even with the modest increase, education makes up about 44% of the total budget Pittman proposed.

Other initiatives he had planned to fund, like body cameras for the police department, will have to wait.

For capital projects, Pittman’s proposed a $352 million budget, which outweighs last year’s capital budget by about $20 million. Nearly $42 million is being pumped from the Permanent Public Improvement Fund into nine projects — an effort to “do more with less,” Pittman said. The rest of the $250 million PPI Fund is going to be spent over the next four years, said Pittman’s senior adviser Chris Trumbauer.

Council Republicans have voiced concerns regarding the $23.9 million structural deficit in the budget, which counts on a fund balance of at least that much by the end of the year to save the county from going into debt. According to a presentation by the budget officer, the county has operated with a structural deficit for seven of the last 11 years, and only operated with a slight structural surplus over the last four years. Trumbauer said over this period the county has averaged a fund balance of about $50 million at the end of the year.

Pittman delivered his proposed budget to the county council on May 1, and the body of seven has until mid-June to pass a balanced budget.

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