Body cameras and a boost for the Board of Education were late additions to Anne Arundel County’s budget for next year, which was passed by the council Friday in a party-line vote.
The $1.72 billion budget includes a slight decrease to the property tax rate, and holds the rate for income tax and utilities steady, as the county enters into a hiring freeze because of the coronavirus pandemic. County Executive Steuart Pittman said they had $63 million less to work with because of the virus than they had initially projected, and that the budget represents a “difficult path through an uncertain time.”
It’s a slight increase over last year’s $1.69 billion budget, in which Pittman raised taxes and made specific efforts for teachers and law enforcement. He said he thinks this budget will allow the county to provide necessary services to residents who are in need now more than ever.
The body cameras were a late addition to the budget, officially requested to the council on Tuesday. Pittman had initially intended on funding them, but cut them from the plan as the coronavirus decimated revenue projections. He vowed to add them back last week after national unrest due to police brutality, and calls to do so from black community leaders.
The technology had bipartisan support from council members, many of whom said the technology will provide a needed layer of accountability and trust for the community and local law enforcement. They moved $1.8 million from the Chief Administrative Office’s contingency fund to pay for them. This fund is typically used to salt the roads and plow in case of a snow storm, and this year was used as part of the coronavirus response.
Pittman said the cameras should be acquired and implemented within the police force of roughly 800 officers within the next year.
“Police body worn cameras will bring more transparency to our police operations and I am hopeful that this is the first step toward reform as we continue discussions on racial equity issues," said Council Chair Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie. "This budget will play a vital and positive role in our ability to respond to the economic recovery ahead.”
The budget puts an emphasis on health and human services, exempting the new Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice from the hiring freeze, as well as 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.
Where he initially funded the Board of Education only at the state-mandated maintenance of effort amount of $14.8 million over last year, the council voted to bump that up by $1.5 million. The new Crofton High School will be fully staffed, 84 teachers will be added to balance enrollment growth, there are 12 new behavioral health positions, 76 new special education positions, 10 new English language teachers and 7 new transportation positions. And the budget includes a step-increase raise for teachers, but does not include any backsteps due to coronavirus-related revenue restraints.
The majority of the $1.5 million increase came from money that was freed by cuts, and the rest came from the contingency fund.
Also in schools but not technically part of the education budget, school nurses will receive a raise this year after they showed up to nearly every budget town hall, asking for more support. The budget includes $265,000 as the first installment in a three-year plan to bring school health staff pay to the level of neighboring jurisdictions.
The council also added a pay increase for Anne Arundel Community College employees that was not drafted into the proposed budget. They did so by moving money from the contingency fund, which now stands around $9 million.
Though the budget office typically likes to have $12 million in the fund to be ready to respond to any emergency, Chris Trumbauer, Pittman’s senior adviser, said moving funds out of it was the best option in this tight budget.
Though the council’s three Republicans said they were in support of many things in the budget, there were others they couldn’t quite get around. All three voted in opposition.
Councilwoman Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, said that although she is grateful to see funding for police body cameras, the staffing of Crofton High School and other projects in her district, she couldn’t reconcile the size of the budget with the economic impact from the coronavirus.
At least 64,000 county residents have successfully filed for unemployment since the beginning of March.
“We’re tasked with not only looking at the micro level for our own individual districts, but we have to look at the big picture, the macro level,” Haire said. “And we can’t do it in a vacuum. We have to do it in the context of the circumstances that surround us.”
She expressed concern about the roughly $24 million structural deficit in the budget, which officials are confident they will be able to cover with fund balance by the end of the year.
If their calculations are off, or if the economic situation created by the virus does not rebound as quickly as expected, she said she worries the council will be in an even more difficult position next year.
Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, noted that the three had brought forth dozens of amendments with further cuts, which she said would have gotten the budget closer to something that was fiscally conservative. But the amendments were defeated without Democratic support.
An effort to cut $2.3 million from the budget by eliminating $1,500 one-time payments to non-represented county employees failed, along with many other efforts to slightly reduce departmental budgets. The council adopted many of their proposed amendments from auditor recommendations that Pittman’s team did not agree with.
The dozens of auditor recommendations Pittman’s team did agree with passed easily on Tuesday.
“The unnecessary spending, especially during this unprecedented time, is not fiscally responsible,” Fiedler said.