Halfway through his first term — and planning for a second one to finish what he’s started — Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh is having a great time, with a few not so minor frustrations, such as dealing with the county council, procurement roadblocks, the merit system for county employees and the teachers union.
“I love the job. It’s a barrel of monkeys,” Schuh said in our second annual year-end interview in his Annapolis office. “We have trouble from the county council and it’s always from the same source,” said Schuh, referring to Councilmember Jerry Walker, a fellow Republican, as well as a persistent critic.
As if to illustrate the point, Schuh’s chief of staff, Diane Croghan, penned a Dec. 19 guest column in The Capital newspaper attacking Walker for zoning changes that increased development in Mayo, near the Chesapeake Bay. Walker denied the charges in his own Dec. 26 letter, attacking Schuh for lack of transparency and his “multi-million-dollar park plans.”
Schuh says his goal for more waterfront parks, playing fields, bike paths and other amenities are now part of his core priorities.
“We’re now taking a more expanded view of quality of life,” which initially focused just on waterway cleanup. But the other projects are “now on par with our other priorities,” such as tax and fee reduction. But “waterway cleanup is still the biggest component of it from a financial perspective.”
After he took office, Schuh said, “It become more and more apparent to me that Anne Arundel County had completely neglected its quality of life infrastructure. … Our deficiencies are manifest … compared to the rest of the country.”
Overall he says he has “a much better relationship” with the council, which Walker chaired in Schuh’s first year, but was replaced by Schuh ally Derek Fink last year. “They’re good guys,” Schuh said, “but they have a deeply ingrained belief that their job is to restrain the executive branch of government. Whatever I put on the table, they automatically assume it’s an overreach.”
Schuh has not officially announced reelection plans, but his aggressive fundraising and hard-charging approach to the job have made no secret of his plans.
“I look at this as an eight-year job. It’s not like business. In business, you can get a lot of things done in four years. In government, you can get a lot of things started, but you can’t get a lot of things done in four years.”
Because Anne Arundel County has a two-term limit on councilmembers, four of the seven, including Walker and Fink, will be gone after the 2018 election, in which Schuh will be “supporting good candidates throughout the county.
“Some very strong people are stepping forward for county council and for the General Assembly — some people I’m very excited about,” though he says he won’t be endorsing in contested Republican primaries, with two possible exceptions.
He twice endorsed Michelle Corkadel in the Republican primary for the South County Council District 7 against Walker, and plans to endorse her again. And surprisingly, he will endorse the only Republican who will remain on the council, despite the fact that Michael Peroutka has consistently voted against Schuh’s plans and spending.
In the 2014 campaign, Peroutka was portrayed as a right-wing reactionary, with political views that include a Bible-based interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, limited government and sympathy to secession. (A lawsuit against two campaign consultants for Peroutka for robocalls he made against his young Democratic opponent, Patrick Armstrong, is supposed to go to trial in February.)
“He’s nothing like the caricature made of him in the election,” Schuh said of Peroutka. He’s “level-headed, polite, professional, low-key. He doesn’t support a lot I want to do. He’s never supported any of my budgets, but I have incredible respect for him. I’ll be enthusiastically endorsing him.”
Peroutka “has very strong views that are very, very consistent with the view of the founders of this country” that are either forgotten or dismissed in modern times, Schuh said. He’s “extremely rational, very predictable. I have no problems with him.”
No Contracting Change
Schuh was also stymied by voters in November when they rejected the charter amendment permitting an increase in county contracts not subject to competitive bidding from $25,000 to $75,000. “We did not do a good job of selling it,” Schuh said. For instance, contrary to what opponents claimed, he said it would not have totally eliminated competitive bidding on such contracts, but simply reduced the lengthy procurement process that includes advertising and potential appeals of contract awards.
“Two-thirds of county contracts would have been covered by that,” Schuh, potentially saving $20 million in time and money.
Procurement and the county council were also an issue in his effort to have outside engineering firms review county building permits to speed up the process. As passed by the county council, any firms doing permit review could not work on other county business. Schuh said most firms did not want to be excluded from other work.
Teachers Health Plan
While Schuh says he maintains good relations with most of the 12 unions representing workers in the county, he’s expecting a showdown with the teachers union about health care benefits. He insists that the negotiated health insurance is “the most generous, over-bloated health benefits plan of any in the state.” He said the county must pick up 90% of the cost of the plan, while most other public employee plans have the government paying 75% of the cost. Also, co-pays are very low compared to other government plans.
Schuh said he’s already made up a $10 million deficit in the plan caused by the council’s diversion of a revenue stream three years ago, but he won’t make another $10 million payment that is due “if they don’t redesign that plan in a manner acceptable to county government.”
The educators work for the school system, and not Schuh, but the county provides 58% of the budget for public schools.
While current relations with the county’s unions may be peachy, Schuh is working on plans “to make some changes to the merit system, nothing dramatic or fundamental,” but changes he hope will tackle the problem of “guaranteed employment for life no matter how underperforming you are.”
Schuh is keeping those plans under wraps at least until next year’s budget cycle.