COVID Pandemic Forces Pittman To Forgo Luxury With FY2021 Budget

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County Executive Steuart Pittman saw the Fiscal Year 2020 budget as an opportunity to make what he considered to be long-overdue investments in education and public safety, at the cost of raising income and property taxes. The $1.7 billion FY2021 budget, conversely, comes at a time for fiscal restraint.

Anne Arundel County initially had a projected $101 million increase over last year’s budget, with about $57 million of that total reserved for non-discretionary expenses, like debt service on capital projects, pensions, and legally enforceable labor contracts. By April 6, that $101 million figure dropped to just $38 million.

“The message was clear,” Pittman said during his video budget address on May 1. “This would be a year to do more with less.”

Plenty of people around the county are doing more with less. Due to a county hiring freeze, only public safety and essential positions will be filled for the remainder of this year. Instead of merit or cost-of-living raises, county employees will receive a one-time pay supplement of $1,500.

Police, fire, detention, state’s attorney, and sheriff departments are not getting the new positions they asked for in FY2021.

Teachers will get the step increase they were promised when hired, but the county is forgoing its plan to continue with back steps. Pittman’s budget calls for the county to fund $14.8 million of the school board’s request (which was made before COVID-19’s impact became realized) and for the state to fund the remaining $20.7 million. Much of that will go to the new Crofton High School, set to open this fall, with 57 new positions.

“We will also bring on 84 new teachers to prevent enrollment growth from increasing our class sizes, 12 new behavioral 5 health positions to continue addressing that urgent need, and the one that all of us recognize to be critically important - 76 new positions to work with our special needs kids,” Pittman said. “I don’t know about you, but that warms my heart.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. Pittman said the capital budget was largely intact thanks to the Reserve Fund for Permanent Public Improvements (PPI), created last year.

“That decision made it possible to keep the school construction plan on track, start work on the Herald Harbor and Cape St. Claire fire stations, start on a much-needed police forensics lab, and set aside capacity to match state funding for improvements on the Route 2 and 3 corridors, thereby moving them up the state’s priority list,” he said.

One beneficiary of this year’s budget is Animal Care and Control, a unit of the Anne Arundel County Police Department.

“We will replace rusty and substandard kennels there, and fund one desperately needed new position: volunteer coordinator,” Pittman said. “Thank you to all who showed up at our seven budget town halls, to speak for the animals in our shelter.”

Health and human services is one area that will see ample funding. The county’s new Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice will be funded, and its first task will be to implement the Coronavirus Health Equity Initiative that was launched on April 13. The county will also fund crisis response teams and the Wellmobile while continuing its search for outside funds.

Pittman said he was moved by the testimony of health department employees who spoke on behalf of school health staff during a budget town hall meeting. As a result, he is budgeting $265,000 in the first installment in a three-year plan to bring their pay to the level of neighboring jurisdictions.

“It is our school health staff that have been re-deployed to do contact tracing on every positive COVID-19 case in our county,” Pittman said. “They help plan the patient’s isolation, identify those who have had direct contact with the patient, call every one of those people, and help each of them plan their 14-day isolation. While the state and other jurisdictions around the country are just starting to roll out plans to build contact tracing teams, here in Anne Arundel County, we made a decision at the outset that thorough contact tracing must be performed on every positive case. This is the only way to isolate COVID-19 and make real progress toward meeting the standards that we will set for ourselves to get our county back to business.”

While many aspects of life have halted during the pandemic, land use issues have not disappeared. The Office of Planning and Zoning still has vacancies to fill, and Pittman wants to fund positions to manage the Land Use Navigator, a digital platform that allows residents to provide feedback, and planners the tools they need to work efficiently.

In his budget address, Pittman praised health care professionals, hospitals, public safety officials, politicians and many others for their response during the COVID-19 pandemic. His budget aims to keep people safe and to aid those who are facing unemployment, homelessness, hunger and crippling debt.

“This budget is a path, a difficult path through an uncertain time,” Pittman said. “It’s not a Democratic path or a Republican path. I believe it’s a responsible path that will prepare our county to Build Back Better, to bring us back to the goals we shared before COVID-19, to set us up to fulfill the pledge we made just months ago.”

The seven-member county council now has 45 days to discuss, amend and approve the budget. A final vote is planned for Friday, June 12.

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