Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he hasn’t ruled out raising taxes again to meet the needs of the county after hosting five budget town halls over the past three weeks.
Among the priorities, residents have advocated for a rugby field in North County; a swim center in West County; sidewalks along Duvall Highway in Pasadena; more resources for Animal Care and Control; and better pay and benefits for school nurses.
In the second year of the seven district-specific budget town halls, Pittman said the enthusiasm hasn’t curbed. Roughly 350 people attended the first five, according to a report from Pittman’s office, whereas about 1,100 people turned out in total in 2019. About 50 people showed up in District 3 — last year the county estimates there were about 105. Of the town halls that have taken place so far, only District 4 saw an increase in attendance — from 120 last year to 160 this year. Despite the apparent drop-off in attendance, Pittman said the feedback is productive.
At each of these events, he’s sat alongside the district’s respective County Council member and explained where the county’s revenue comes from and how resources were divided up in last year’s budget. He’s asked the community for feedback, assured crowds that there’s a method to his madness, and then he’s listened.
On Wednesday, under fluorescent lights in the Northeast High School cafeteria, he sat next to Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, on a makeshift stage and heard students’ appeals for sidewalks on Duvall Highway.
They shared stories of walking home or to the bus along the road’s shoulder, and being afraid of slipping on piles of leaves or getting hit by a car.
“There have been a lot of local issues brought forth and groups that have organized and come to the town halls,” Pittman said. “So it’s been great. It’s real grassroots engagement from the community bringing things to our attention that our department heads might not have brought to our attention.”
He heard school nurses talk about high-pressure work environments, lacking benefits and how they’d qualify for food stamps if not for a more gainfully employed spouse.
And at every town hall, he said, dozens of people have shown up in purple t-shirts with white paw prints, advocating for more resources for Anne Arundel County’s Animal Care and Control. They spoke about the need for a larger staff and better conditions for the animals.
Councilwoman Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis, said that before the budget town hall she didn’t realize the need that Animal Care and Control was facing. Now, she said, she will advocate for it in the budget process. She said she appreciates the opportunity to have such open dialogue with the community about their priorities.
“There are new issues that have been brought up,” Pittman said, noting that some are fairly low-dollar requests. “I expect that we are going to be acting (on some of this).”
Last year in his first budget, Pittman raised the income tax from 2.5% to 2.81% and property taxes from 90.2 cents to 93.5 cents per $100 assessed value to invest in law enforcement, hire more teachers, and give overdue step raises to existing teachers, he said.
Still, Anne Arundel has among the lowest tax rates in the state. Pittman reminded constituents of that in his town hall presentations.
This year, he said, mathematically it won’t be possible to fund all of the School Board’s budget without raising taxes again.
“I have not made any decisions. I know there’s going to be pressure to create revenue to fund things,” Pittman said. And the decision isn’t so much political, but a matter of whether the residents of Anne Arundel County are willing to invest more to get more, he said.
Rodvien, who voted in support of Pittman’s last budget, said she doesn’t want to raise taxes again if at all possible.
“I don’t think anyone wants to (raise taxes),” Rodvien said. “But it comes down to things that are really essential to taking care of the community so I would certainly never close the door on that possibility.”
Pittman said that any elected official who isn’t willing to consider revenue enhancements is not doing their job. Either way, he said, it will be a difficult decision.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“We want people to say ‘don’t raise our taxes’ or ‘do,’” Pittman said. “We want people to tell us how to pay for stuff. (But) I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback on that at the town halls.”
The Fiscal Year 2020 budget passed with votes from the four Democrats on the council but caused concern and frustration from three opposing Republicans, who said it was too much too soon.
Volke was a vocal opponent of the budget. In May, he introduced a charter amendment resolution that would have capped the income tax at 2.5%. When it failed, he said he would pursue the tax cap through the petition process. He’d need 10,000 signatures to move it forward to get it on the 2020 ballot.
He recently said he was still considering it.
Pittman said part of the budget town halls is him meeting individually with each council member to learn what is important to their constituents. He said it’s a valuable part of the process because it allows him to take a better pulse of the county.
During his brief presentation, Volke spoke about his recently passed resolution to declare suicide a public health crisis in Anne Arundel County and vowed to advocate for more resources for mental health in the upcoming budget.
“We only have so many dollars and we have to figure out how to get the best bang for our buck for the citizens of this county,” Volke said.