Steuart Pittman: Budget will not ignore education, public safety and infrastructure needs

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After 50 hours of meetings with department heads, and seven Budget Town Halls with over 1,100 residents in attendance, a loud and clear message is emerging.

Anne Arundel County is facing a crisis of its own making. For a generation, we have underfunded critical county needs such as education, public safety, roads and other infrastructure. We cannot continue this trend — it’s fiscally unsustainable and irresponsible.

On May 1, I will present a budget to the County Council. We are still crunching numbers, but I feel an obligation to share my thinking.

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Many people in our county are struggling, at every age level. Anne Arundel Community Foundation released its Poverty Amidst Plenty report last month, and it shook me up. Income disparity is growing, and for low and moderate-income working people, this county is becoming a very difficult place to live.

I believe that public education is our most important anti-poverty tool, our greatest economic development strategy, and our best community revitalization program. But today, we have overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers. We have to fix this.

Our bipartisan and partially elected school board unanimously approved an ambitious budget that treats teachers fairly and invests in our future. I believe almost everything in that budget is necessary to give our students the excellent education they deserve.

I was raised to believe that providing public safety is government’s most sacred obligation. Fire and ambulance call volume in our county has grown more than 5% in each of the last seven years, and police officers are being forced to work 12-hour shifts because our county grew by leaps and bounds with no increase in public safety staffing. This puts lives in jeopardy, and we have to fix it.

Development has been reckless in our county, and that’s the source of our biggest fiscal challenges. Past administrations cut critical planning staff, and we have fewer inspectors per construction site than any county in the state by far. I have promised community-driven planning, transparency, and enforcement of the rules. Count on that happening.

Hours wasted sitting in traffic each week are wreaking havoc on our quality of life. Ten years ago, perhaps seduced by influential developer interests, county politicians set developer impact fees far below what was needed to actually offset the cost of development. Budget analysts tell us that decision cost us $107 million toward efforts to lessen traffic. That’s a big fiscal pothole to climb out of. We will fix this.

Anne Arundel County has had a property tax revenue cap since 1992. It forced our tax rate down from just over a dollar per $100 of value in 1990 to about 90 cents today. As our tax base grows, the tax rate goes down, unless that growth is new development. That’s one reason that elected officials have been so eager to promote development in our county.

There were four years since the cap was created when county politicians set a rate lower than the revenue cap requires. It should come as no surprise that those were election years. Cumulatively, those politically driven re-sets of our cap cost the county $470 million in revenue. Today, we are an outlier, with a property tax rate 10 percent below any of the other “big eight” counties.

The Maryland General Assembly determined in 2012 that local property tax revenue caps were preventing counties from adequately funding their education needs. So they passed legislation allowing counties to assess a rate above their cap, provided the revenue directly funds public education needs. This is an option we are exploring.

Most other large counties are at or near the state maximum income tax rate of 3.2 percent. We’re at 2.5 percent, the third lowest in the state. Our overall “tax effort,” as determined by state analysts, is ranked 23rd of the 24 Maryland counties.

I love that our county has relatively low taxes, and I will not present a budget that raises tax rates to the levels of other large counties, but I refuse to ignore the needs of our communities for education, public safety, and infrastructure.

I promised to make Anne Arundel County The Best Place. The budget I will introduce on May 1 will put us on a responsible path to get there.

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