Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh’s first budget last year had a bit of rough ride with the county council, but reaction to his $1.4 billion spending plan for fiscal 2017 has generally been more positive.
“This budget is a great budget,” said Chris Trumbauer, the senior Democrat on the council representing the Annapolis area. “There’s no major flaw in it that I can find. … It looks a lot like a budget I would together.”
Last year, Trumbauer learned of Schuh’s plans through the news media, but this year “he met with me,” as Schuh did with other members of the council. “Largely, we got what we expected to see.”
Republican Councilmember Jerry Walker, who has an ongoing feud with fellow Republican Schuh, was less enthusiastic, though he’s still sorting through the operating budget. “They don’t meet with me,” Walker said. The council will finish its work on the budget June 15. Schuh’s budget calls for a cut in the property tax rate. Unlike last year’s tax cut plan that the council changed, this year’s reduction comes courtesy of the county’s property tax cap, which only allows these revenues to grow by the rate of inflation.
Elementary Schools Delayed
Trumbauer and Walker have problems with Schuh’s capital budget, which delays the construction of three elementary schools — Edgewater and Tyler Heights in Annapolis and Richard Henry Lee in Glen Burnie — in favor of a new Crofton High School.
Neither council member has a problem with building a Crofton high school in Walker’s district — a campaign promise by Schuh, part of his push to reduce the high number of students at each Anne Arundel high school. No new high schools have been built in the county since the 1980s; but these three elementary schools, old and crowded, were the top priority for the county school board.
“I think he should have done them all,” said Walker, instead of a central booking facility, tennis courts in Millersville, boat ramps and park renovations. There’s no controversy over other capital items, including construction money for five other elementary schools, a new $10 million police academy and an $11 million replacement for the Annapolis library. Almost half the capital budget, $137 million, goes to school construction or renovation, the largest amount in county history. There is also almost $17 million for technology enhancements to make up for a decade of neglect.
Quality of Life Projects
Items like the boat ramps and opening up a county beach for public use are part of what Schuh is calling “quality of life” projects that he started talking about in December. Fiscally conservative Anne Arundel County had not invested in these kinds of recreation amenities the way Howard County has.
The new public boat ramp in Fort Smallwood Park is only the third public ramp in a county that has the most registered boats in the state. It is not just a simple slab of concrete, but a $5 million project that includes a parking lot and complements fishing piers and jetties.
Walker also has a problem with Schuh looking into replacing the school nurses program with an outside contractor. The nurses currently work for the Health Department, a state agency under county government.
Schuh has put out a Request for Information, insisting that the nurses, most of whom are contractors, are underpaid and poorly managed. Walker says the proposal makes little sense as a way to save money or improve services.
“The nurses are very concerned about losing their jobs,” Walker said. Taking a swipe at Schuh, he said the executive wants “to put a feather in his cap for his idea of government reform.” The change for school nurses is not part of the new county budget.
School Board Mess
In early April, the legislature sent Gov. Larry Hogan a bill to replace his appointees on the Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Commission. Democratic lawmakers didn’t like the picks his folks were making in one of the only counties left in Maryland where the board is appointed entirely by the governor, rather than elected by the people.
Hogan vetoed the measure, saying it was unconstitutionally usurping his powers; the legislators easily overrode his veto. The members of the nominating commission to be replaced went to court in May. A judge agreed with them and Hogan, and that the measure was unconstitutionally targeting his appointees.
They proceeded to send more names to Hogan for school board seats not even vacant yet. Attorney General Brian Frosh said they couldn’t do that. Another Anne Arundel judge wouldn’t stop them.
It is all part of the continuing drama over the Anne Arundel County Board of Education. Republicans, including Schuh, say the Democrats controlling the nominating process, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, have deliberately excluded Republicans. Democratic legislators, including House Speaker Michael Busch, who represents an Annapolis district, say they want diversity on the board, and have blocked attempts to elect school board members, who run in nonpartisan elections.
The court cases will be appealed.
The Capital newspaper, of Annapolis, summarized the drama in an editorial: “Lawyers are going to find this two-pronged struggle interesting and instructive; county residents are likely to find it confusing, frustrating and an argument for an elected school board.”