Things got pretty bad in Anne Arundel County, but now they’re getting better. That was the theme of Laura Neuman’s May 1 budget message to the Anne Arundel County Council, asking for $1.3 billion to run the county next year.
Just two months into office, the new county executive wanted to launch “a new chapter and a fresh start.” But in her first official visit to the council since it appointed her, she felt she needed to portray how bleak things were when she arrived after the conviction of former County Executive John Leopold for misuse of the staff.
“I walked into an office that was sullen and silent, overshadowed by fear,” she told the council. The atmosphere was paralyzing and non-productive. “I felt as if I had stepped back 20 years in time.”
That’s how old the computer mainframe was, said Neuman, a former tech CEO. All the technology was outdated, the furniture was falling apart, police cars were decrepit, departments were understaffed and employees hadn’t been given raises in years.
“I quickly realized that our county was way behind in culture, attitude and investment — investment both in people and in the necessary resources to run an effective government.”
Spending on Infrastructure
With revenues increasing from a recovering economy — and the continuing expansion of the Cyber Command at Fort Meade — Neuman is increasing spending in a number of areas.
She has put an additional $17 million into the school system, as state law required. As yet another symbol of the county’s new management, Neuman asked School Superintendent Kevin Maxwell to attend the budget unveiling, showing the two were part of “an interconnected team.” She didn’t need to mention the bitter feud between Maxwell and Leopold about the half of the county budget that goes to education.
Neuman proposes giving raises to all county employees, who suffered furloughs in past years. She’s asking for 3% COLAs and 3% merit pay for union employees, and a 4% COLA next year, plus 3% merit pay for non-union workers.
Just an hour into the job in March, she found there were 13 open union negotiations. Now 12 contracts have been settled, and one is in arbitration; nine of the contracts will last for two years.
Computers, Cars, Communications
Neuman is asking for $5.2 million to buy computers, networks and communications hardware and software to replace 1980s technology and make government more efficient. She’s planning to put $16 million into a depleted rainy day fund.
She wants to restore library hours that had been cut, and purchase 79 new police cars, though she admits she’s been told that 273 of them need replacing. Police and fire radios will be upgraded. More funding is going to the community college, including enough money for 3% raises.
“For too long, our county has not made investing in people or infrastructure a priority, and that has resulted in a deteriorating organization,” she said.
While faulting Leopold’s leadership, Neuman heaped praise on Budget Officer John Hammond, who was county administrative officer and acting county executive before Neuman got the job. She credited Hammond for “keeping us in sound financial shape during a tumultuous time.”
She should probably also credit him with finding the resources to make her look like a hero with a budget that is chock full of good news, raises and new equipment to help the county run better. She may have lucked into a recovery that will help erase the doom and gloom of the lean Leopold years.
Veto on Stormwater
Before her upbeat budget plan, Neuman took her most dramatic action last month by vetoing the county council’s proposed stormwater remediation fees (the “rain tax”). She announced the decision with an op-ed essay. Even though the council overrode her veto on the same day as the budget message, it’s worth quoting since it reveals some of how the new county executive makes decisions:
“When I took office, I made a promise to the County Council and to the residents of Anne Arundel County that I would not shy away from challenges and that the decisions that I make will be above board, transparent and prudent, fiscally and practically, for our county. The simple fact is that our county has been distracted over the last year and we have not done our job informing the public.
“Since this statewide law went into effect, I have received hundreds of e-mails on this issue: many asking me to veto the bill and many asking me to sign it. What this signals to me is that I just can’t, in good conscience, sign a bill that will affect generations to come without ensuring that all of our stakeholders are fully educated about this law.
“For this reason, I intend to veto this bill — not because I don’t believe in investing in our community, but because I believe more work needs to be done. I have asked members of the County Council to revisit the amount of the stormwater remediation fees for commercial property as well as a slower phase-in for residential properties.
“No one likes added fees or taxes. But if a new tax is to be imposed, the residents of this county have a right to know about it and to understand why it is needed. I look forward to working on a better plan for our county. Getting this right is more important than getting it done fast.”
The decision was in keeping with the county’s general aversion to tax hikes, confirmed Neuman’s credentials as a fiscal conservative and drew immediate praise from many constituents and talk show hosts, who rejoiced that someone was listening to their anger over a state imposed tax hike.
It also drew harsh editorials criticizing her from the Baltimore Sun and Capital-Gazette Newspapers — a badge of honor for a new Republican politician.
On the other hand, her directions to the council for another plan were about as vague as the state law that mandates the rain tax. Council members chose to stick with the plan they had spent months to contrive.
Residents will be hit July 1 with an added property tax; a 1% hike in the state gas tax (though it may be hard to notice in the wide swings in gasoline prices at the pump); and higher tolls on the Chesapeake Bay bridge. They will go up 50%, from $4 to $6, or for commuters, from $1 to $2.10.
Movin’ On, Movin’ Up
Republican Del. Steve Schuh is continuing with his plans to run for county executive, despite the setback of Neuman’s appointment to the post. He has, after all, raised more $500,000 to pursue the race, and the prospects for any advancement in the Democrat-dominated House of Delegates are nil. Rather than running for an open seat if Leopold had remained in office, Schuh must now challenge an incumbent, Neuman, unless she decides she doesn’t like the job and declines to file for election in February.
Republican Del. Nic Kipke of Pasadena was not waiting for opportunity to knock, either. The 32-year-old second-term legislator successfully knocked off House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell. Kipke and running mate Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, the new minority whip, promised not just to battle Democrats in committee and on the House floor, but at the ballot box as well, recruiting strong candidates and raising money to help them win.
This was the third attempt by Kipke to oust O’Donnell, who had been in the job for six years.
With the new legislative districts enacted last year after the 2010 Census, Republicans will be doing well just to maintain the 43 seats they now hold in the 141-member House of Delegates. That is the highest number the party has ever had, picking up six seats in the 2010 election. Democratic House Speaker Michael Busch, who sat on the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee, did his best to draw new lines that favored Democrats and hurt Republican incumbents.
One of those Republicans drawn out of an Annapolis district was Del. Ron George, the conservative owner of two jewelry stores. To the surprise of many, George is exploring a run for governor and plans to announce it officially next month.