Since Anne Arundel County started keeping logs in 1998, only once have two councilmembers voted against the budget.
On Friday, June 14, three members voted against it.
The Fiscal Year 2020 budget passed 4-3 along party lines with Democrats approving a $1.7 billion spending plan almost identical to the one Pittman proposed on May 1.
The budget pushed the property tax rate from 90.2 cents per $100 of assessed value to 93.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. County residents will now pay 2.81% in income taxes instead of 2.5%. Water and sewer rates, along with stormwater remediation fees, will also cost taxpayers more in 2020.
The council’s Democratic majority argued that the tax increases were necessary.
“My colleagues have mentioned this budget is transforming the county, and yes, it’s transforming the county, a county that has spent two decades underfunding itself, and we can no longer wait for someone else to rescue us,” said Allison Pickard from District 2. “It’s time. It’s time we take care of ourselves and invest in our children, in our public safety, in our communities.”
Both Democrats and Republicans presented the budget as “a new normal.” For Democrats, that new normal meant supporting county agencies and programs left underfunded since the recession of 2008 and 2009. Republicans pegged the “new normal” as an era marked by waves of impending tax increases.
District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler and the council’s other two Republicans, Nathan Volke of District 3 and Jessica Haire of District 7, suggested $20 million in cuts to the operating budget without removing a single teacher, police or firefighter position. Their amendments failed along party lines.
“This budget is essentially unchanged from what the county executive proposed on May 1 despite my best efforts and the efforts of my colleagues to address those concerns,” Fiedler said. “It is my opinion that this budget is just simply too large.”
Even though the county council didn’t cut much, the budget wasn’t entirely unchanged. The council worked with the county auditor to add eight behavioral health positions to the Board of Education budget, and also added a new planner position in the Office of Planning and Zoning, and a new deputy sheriff for courtroom security. Fifteen firefighter positions were added to Pittman’s recommendation of 35 for a total of 50.
Overall, the budget included funding for 10 new police officers and for 13 detention officers to staff the new central booking facility in Annapolis. Four new environmental inspectors, six new planners and one park ranger will be hired.
Anne Arundel County is earmarking an extra $46 million for education in 2020, providing raises for educators and adding 140 new classroom teachers, 50 special education positions and 35 mental health positions.
Other investments included a county-stat program to increase efficiency and accountability, support for community development housing programs and rental assistance, $1 million for maintenance and renovations at county parks, and funds to make the library branch at the Annapolis Mall permanent.
Councilman Nathan Volke, a Republican from District 3 in Pasadena, said he was proud to support more teachers, police officers and firefighters, but that upgrades should be incremental improvements, without all upgrades coming in one budget. The Spending Affordability Committee, he said, unanimously recommended a 3.75% increase in spending.
“There can be no doubt that increasing government spending by 7% in one fiscal year is new territory for Anne Arundel County,” Volke said. “There can be no doubt that increasing taxes for the average family by over $550 a year in one budget is a turning point for this county. And there can be no doubt that increasing the budget by $106 million in a single year creates a new normal of government spending for Anne Arundel County.”
In explaining their votes, the council’s Democrats shared stories of failing infrastructure and services.
“In 2009, we had a $158 million backlog of road and infrastructure needs,” Pickard said. “Guess what? Today we still have that backlog.”
Council chairman Andrew Pruski of District 4 relayed tales of fire departments left unstaffed.
“That’s embarrassing,” Pruski said. “I mean especially if somebody is having a heart attack and it’s going to take a half an hour to get there.”
The budget also includes $250 million for the newly established Reserve Fund for Permanent Public Improvements (PPI), which will finance capital projects in these areas: school construction, public safety facilities, and road capacity and transportation projects.
That PPI was another contentious target of the council, with Volke saying, “It is also not fiscally responsible to take on $250 million in new bond obligations when we cannot even identify where the money will be spent yet. As the county auditor — who is our nonpartisan fiscal watchdog — has noted, this new debt will quickly become unsustainable in the near future, requiring additional tax increases.”
District 6 Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien doesn’t expect the tax rates to hinder Anne Arundel County, which will have the fourth-lowest income tax rate in Maryland and the fifth-lowest property tax rate out of 24 jurisdictions.
“We are not moving to the tax capital of the state,” Rodvien said. “We are still very modest with respect to our taxes and I think that leaves us in a very good positon to be proud of this budget. We’re making very well-needed, very important investments without having to break the bank.”
The county council made history with its divisive 4-3 vote on the budget, but Pittman sees only the positive work its members did. He looks forward to the budget taking effect on July 1.
“This budget is a much needed correction to years of kicking the can down the road,” Pittman said in a statement. “We have done what our county charter directs us to do — determine the needs of our county and set tax rates that balance the budget – and we have done it in a fiscally responsible way.”