By Zach Sparks
“Like walking into a store” — that’s how County Executive Steuart Pittman described the new town hall budget meeting process, which had its first installment at Southern High School in Harwood on February 27. Instead of choosing between a new pair of athletic shoes and a crockpot, Anne Arundel County residents can voice their preference between salary raises, community amenities and road improvements while also supporting or opposing the tax hikes that may fund those items.
Voters opted for a referendum in 2016 that required the county executive to hold at least two public budget hearings prior to finalizing the initial proposal on May 1. Pittman is expanding that requirement so that each council district will have a meeting. Severna Park High School will host the District 5 event on Tuesday, March 26, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm.
Each town hall features opening remarks from the county executive and the host councilmember, followed by a brief budget presentation. Attendees are then encouraged to pose questions.
“Rather than having the citizens come in and talk to the department heads and pick up their brochures in a gymnasium with a bunch of tables, it’s going to be a hearing, and there is going to be information provided to people before they come to that hearing,” Pittman said prior to the first meeting. “People are going to stand up, just the way they do at the county council meetings, and argue for what they believe and I’m going to listen. And then we have to go back and come up with a plan.”
The Anne Arundel County website will allow people to review last year’s spending, and see the cost of adding services and county employees.
“We’ve asked for basic information: how much a police officer and car costs, how much a teacher costs, how much a school costs,” Pittman said. “If we want to fund those things, then we look at sources of revenue. There’s the property tax, the income tax and impact fees from developers.”
Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler is eager to attend the District 5 budget hearing to learn more about her constituents’ priorities.
“For me personally, it’s a much more beneficial scenario so that the same question is not being asked by multiple people and you really get the one-on-one opportunity to hear from not only the county executive in this circumstance and also the councilmember,” Fiedler said.
According to a January report issued by the Spending and Affordability Committee, Anne Arundel County should receive $57.2 million more than Fiscal Year 2019 due to an income growth rate projection of 3.75 percent. Pittman said roughly $40 million of that total will be earmarked for mandated requirements like pensions.
Salary increases might mean reversing course on recent tax cuts under former County Executive Steve Schuh and the former county council, but Fiedler would like to fund county priorities without raising taxes.
“There has been a lot of discussion about a loophole for the property tax cap,” she said. “That’s concerning to me to use a loophole on a charter that was passed by the voters. I think that undermines what the voters felt that they were voting for, that this was a property tax cap that cannot be changed unless five members of the council vote to put it out to the ballot again.
“And I have concerns about tax increases in general,” she added. “The county executive did say … that revenues for the county were increasing from tax rates that we currently have and that we need to prioritize our spending without raising taxes. So it’s alarming to me that we’re now talking about raising taxes, because we were increasing our revenue.”
Remaining town hall dates include Glen Burnie High School on March 7, Northeast High School on March 12, Lindale Middle School on March 20 and Annapolis High School on March 28. Pittman’s administration plans to live-stream each meeting.
Pittman will announce his budget on May 1. The county council will have 45 days to deliberate changes. In a statement, Pittman emphasized the importance of citizen input.
“We want our residents to be involved in our county budget decisions and we want direct citizen input to help inform us,” Pittman said. “The county charter requires us to have two meetings, but that’s not enough. We are going out into the communities in each council district to share information about what things cost and what our revenue projections look like. Information is power.”