By Nathan Volke
Councilman, District 3
From May 1 to June 15, the county council focuses almost entirely on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This year, that was more true than usual given the significant turnover in county government, including a new county executive, new budget officer, new county auditor and six new councilmembers (out of seven). With all of these new faces, it made the budget even more of a challenging process than normal. On June 14, we passed the final budget so that the county can operate for another year.
In looking at the finished product, there are definitely some things to like in this year’s budget. I will highlight a few things, but I encourage you to review the budget in full on the county website, and watch any of the budget hearing videos on the county website or YouTube. The information, debate and votes are all publicly available. Here are some good things first.
We added nearly 140 new teacher positions to help decrease class sizes and keep up with enrollment growth. Teachers saw pay increases and were paid for makeup step increases not received from recession times (back in 2009 and 2010). We added mental health professionals to make sure our students get the support they need at school, and accelerated school construction funds for a number of projects around the county.
In public safety, we added 50 new firefighters and 10 police officers while also increasing pay to help with hiring and retention of detention officers. Improvements to Hancock’s Resolution, Downs Park and Fort Smallwood Park were approved. A $75 million placeholder for road improvements was granted for future projects - though specific projects have not yet been identified.
On the flip side of the equation is increased revenue (taxes). The Fiscal Year 2020 budget saw county government increase by $106 million over last year’s budget. As a percentage, that means this year’s budget grew by nearly 7% over last year’s budget. However, projections from independent analysts say that the average taxpayer will see his or her income grow by about 3.75%. It concerns me that government spending is growing about twice as fast as your paycheck. In simple terms, more of your money will go to taxes each year. Most people I know would call that a pay cut. How much of a pay cut? The average family (household income of $100,000, house valued at $400,000) will be paying almost $6,000 more in taxes over the next 10 years because of this budget.
Furthermore, this budget added $250 million in new county bonds (debt), but the county has not yet identified specifically where or how that money will be spent. The county auditor, our nonpartisan fiscal watchdog, informed the council that the interest payments on this new debt will quickly become unsustainable in the near future.
I supported many of the priorities and projects in this budget. But I realize that the taxpayers - you and me - have to pay for them. Due to my concerns regarding this rapid fiscal growth, I worked with my colleagues on the council to propose 60 amendments that would have cut $20 million from the operating budget without cutting a single teacher, police officer or firefighter. All 60 amendments were defeated on a party-line vote. This budget, while offering many great things for county citizens, has changed the fiscal nature of Anne Arundel County forever. In future budgets, I’m hopeful we can find more of a balance between spending for today and protecting our financial future.