August 10, 2018
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County Council Tweaks FY2019 Budget To Add Teachers

Zach Sparks
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July 10, 2018

When County Executive Steve Schuh presented his $1.59 billion Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal in May, he highlighted pay increases for police and teachers, major investments in roads and a property tax cut.

As the seven-member county council put its stamp on the budget, which was finalized June 14, one need became apparent: more teachers and counselors.

The council added 42 teachers to Schuh’s proposal, for a total of 86. Another amendment to nix the property tax cut and add 20 more teachers was defeated 4-3 with Councilman John Grasso, a Republican from Glen Burnie, serving as the swing vote.

Democrats on the council argued that the property tax rate was going to decline anyway — it was a matter of $0.904 cents per $100 of assessment or $0.902 cents, both lower than the 2017 rate of $0.907 cents — and that the cut would yield only modest savings — an average of $8 a year for the owner of a $400,000 home. After talking to a constituent, Grasso made his decision based on principle.

“He’s not squawking about $8 a year,” Grasso said of the constituent. “It’s the idea that it’s one more time. Like you have a friend and they ask you for a couple dollars and then a couple more dollars and another couple dollars. The constituency that I represent, they get tired of people reaching in their pockets, and they get resentment and they fight back.”

Other councilmen called the budget a win, though, because they added those 42 teachers by transferring $1 million within the Board of Education budget and making other cuts.

“We didn’t do anything disruptive to the budget, just tightened it up according to some recommendations from the county auditor,” said Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat representing Annapolis in District 6.

Pasadena Republican Derek Fink said, “While we certainly can’t fund everything the Board of Education has asked for, because that would essentially take up everything – we’re still responsible for the police officers and the fire departments and the roads and everything else we do – I do think this is a good balance.”

The council also debated a $20 million reduction in $28 million earmarked for land acquisition. About $22 million of that is expected to be used for the Belle Grove Landfill, located in District 1, which is presided over by Councilman Pete Smith, a Democrat from Severn.

Smith voted to keep the funds for land acquisition, which the county plans to use for a school or a park, but he wished the Schuh administration would have approached him months prior to budget season so he could have done more research.

The council did add provisions for a feasibility study and environmental study.

“You wouldn’t buy a house without knowing if it has asbestos or mold,” Smith said. “It was sort of rushed, in my opinion. I don’t think the land was going anywhere.”

Smith wasn’t alone in his assessment. Trumbauer said the council had no idea how much it will cost to do environment mitigation on the property.

“We didn’t want to be rushed into making that assessment,” Trumbauer said. “We didn’t want to write a blank check.”

The council kept the $28 million, with Grasso, Smith, Millersville Republican Michael Peroutka and Fink voting “nay” for the cut. Grasso was reassured knowing that the future county council will have to approve any project built on that land.

“They think the county executive will buy this property without doing any feasibility study,” Grasso said of other council members. “He’s a millionaire who owns businesses. I’m certain he is not going to dive into the water without kicking his feet.”

The aforementioned changes aside, much of Schuh’s budget was kept intact. For education, $21.2 million will fund two educator step pay increases. In the public safety sector, the budget begins funding a 15 percent increase in compensation for police over the next two years while also adding 20 new police positions, including 10 school resource officers. Also, $30 million will be set aside for road maintenance.

The budget will largely be remembered for its impact on education. Superintendent George Arlotto was pleased with the process and with a supplemental budget that Schuh unveiled, pushing $36 million from FY2020 to FY2019 to start on construction projects for Edgewater, Tyler Heights and Richard Henry Lee elementary schools. Another supplemental budget added $640,000 worth of school counselors and social workers.

“This process is proof positive of the value of continued conversations, collaborative hard work and passionate public input,” Arlotto said in a statement. “The supplemental operating and capital budget appropriations by the county executive and the Herculean efforts of the county council have resulted in our students and our school system being in a much better place heading into the next academic year than we were when the county executive’s budget proposal was first presented.”

Although he is thrilled with the effort to support the three elementary schools, Trumbauer said he is concerned that front-loading the budget will create more debt. Overall, he said, “This was a good budget. The process went smoothly.”

Grasso called it “a better budget than last year.”

“Now that the economy is stable, we have more money in the rainy day fund, people are getting the raises they were denied and public safety vehicles are being replaced with updated equipment,” Grasso said.

As for Smith? “It would have been nice to say that for the $8, classroom sizes would have kept with the growth. But we did make some inroads.”

The budget took effect July 1, 2018.

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