At a budget briefing two days after the coronavirus touched down in Anne Arundel County, officials were told they could expect $101 million more in revenue for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget than they had last year.
Two weeks later, that projection was nearly halved. One week after that, they were left with just $38 million over last year — a $19 million deficit for the $57 million in non-discretionary costs the budget would require.
With a hiring freeze, tightening throughout the county budget, and some “tough choices,” County Executive Steuart Pittman released a proposed $1.72 billion budget Friday that preserves and prioritizes health and human services. This recipe, he said, will allow the county to “build back better” after the threat of the coronavirus subsides.
“It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the programs I fought hardest for in this budget were the ones that protect the health and wellness of our most vulnerable residents,” Pittman said in his budget address Friday morning.
“This budget is a path, a difficult path through an uncertain time.”
He proposes 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 hiring freeze also excludes public safety and other essential roles, Pittman said.
County employees are safe from any layoff or furlough and Pittman has proposed a one-time payment of $1,500 instead of any cost-of-living or merit-based pay increases, he said. The only county employees that will receive pay increases are those who are unionized, as their contracts were negotiated before the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic became clear.
And though he raised taxes in his last budget, Pittman opted to hold steady this year, noting the economic impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered businesses and left more than 30,000 county residents suddenly unemployed.
The income tax rate will remain at 2.81%, and the property tax rate will go from 93.5 cents to 93.4 centers per $100 assessed value. Such a small change in the rate means tax bills will increase as assessments increase.
“This isn’t the budget we hoped for, but it’s the budget the county needs in this uncertain time,” Pittman said. “The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to defer progress that was planned for this year, but the decisions we made last year will ensure that our departments are able to provide higher quality services to our residents than ever before.”
Where capital projects would have been paused due to lack of revenue, Pittman said some are being saved by the Permanent Public Improvement fund, which was established in last year’s budget. As such, the capital budget exceeds last year’s portion by about $20 million — Pittman proposes about $352 million to be split between several departments.
He said he has no plans to dip into the Revenue Reserve Fund, or Rainy Day Fund, which stands at nearly $80 million. He proposes adding $1 million to it, and said the county would only use it in emergency circumstances.
This budget has proven to be controversial, even before its official release. On Thursday, Republican Councilmembers Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, and Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, issued a release establishing their priorities for the budget process.
They called on Pittman to decrease taxes to relieve the burden on families and they plan to introduce legislation that would push the Rainy Day Fund limit from 5% to 10% of the General Fund and a call to freeze the council’s planned pay increase.
Following the Republicans announcements, Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie, and Vice Chair Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup, have emphasized the need to come together to focus on recovery. They have 45 days to pass a balanced budget.
“I had high hopes this year for teacher and support staff compensation — a plan to continue with back steps and a good package for this year was in the works,” Pittman said. “That may be better than some past years, but it’s less than our teachers deserve.”
The new Crofton High School is still slated to open in the fall, and it will be staffed by 57 new teachers. Across other county schools, he proposes hiring 84 teachers to prevent class size growth as enrollment grows. Additionally, 76 special education positions and 12 behavioral health specialists.
In addition to the $14.8 million from the county, the school system will receive about $20 million from the state.
For school health workers — who are technically employed by the Department of Health — Pittman’s proposed $265,000 as part of a three-year plan to get their salaries closer to what they would be in neighboring counties.
They turned up to many of the January budget town halls sharing personal stories to implore the county government to improve their conditions.
Public safety is technically exempt from the hiring freeze — Pittman said they will still be allowed to fill vacant positions, but they won’t be allowed to add new positions this year.
The fire department will have to pause it’s SAFER Grant initiative — an effort by FEMA that partially pays for the hire of dozens of new firefighters. But the department will get one new position in relation to a new partnership with the Department of Aging called Mobile Integrated Community Health.
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And the Sheriff’s Department won’t get additional deputy sheriff’s to staff courtrooms, which Pittman called “the most urgent request in public safety that we were unable to fulfill this year.”
Animal Care and Control, of which representatives also turned up to the January town halls in troves, will have its rusty kennels replaced and will see the addition of a new volunteer coordinator position, Pittman said.
Land Use and Environment
In his address, Pittman doubled down on his commitment to the environment and revamping land use standards.
“As we isolate ourselves from one another to slow the spread of this virus, it is our parks, our trees, the green grass, and the flowers that remind us that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves,” Pittman said. “Our environment still matters, and it always will.”
He aims to fund positions related to the forthcoming Land Use Navigator, a digital platform that will give residents access to land use and development information. And other vacancies in the Office of Planning and Zoning.