When Steve Schuh sat down at the dining room table in Ray and Ann Sharp’s modest rancher on 11th Street in Pasadena’s Chelsea Beach neighborhood, he was ready to talk about all the big issues that led him to campaign for three years to become Anne Arundel County executive.
“This is an exciting time for me,” Schuh told the five residents. “I have a real opportunity to address these challenges” and make Anne Arundel County, as he said thousands of times during the campaign and since, “the best place to live, work and start a business.”
The five mostly elderly residents were interested in his plans to cut property taxes by 3%, but less so in his plans to build more and smaller high schools and improve public safety.
But how was he going help retirees stay in Maryland? asked Fred Lezert, president of the Chelsea Beach Residents Association, such as deferring property taxes for seniors, not just reducing them.
“We’ve been thinking of moving to Delaware,” said Ann Sharp.
She was also concerned about the failing septic systems in the neighborhood that are contributing to the pollution of the nearby Magothy River, where the Sharps’ children once learned how to swim.
“Now, you don’t want to get your toes in the water,” she said.
Tammie Holmes’s big issues were the poor condition of nearby playing fields and the sorry state of the portable toilets there.
Schuh and his staff were writing it all down. In an interview afterward, Schuh conceded that these sit downs with county residents often devolve into pothole politics.
From decrepit baseball fields to tax policy, failing septic tanks to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, it’s all in a day’s work for the executive of Maryland’s fifth largest jurisdiction and its largest Republican-leaning suburban county.
But a little surprising in this aging suburban community was that the residents were also interested in Schuh’s work to quell the heroin epidemic that he said is producing “an overdose a day and a fatality a week.”
“I lost a child” to a drug problem, said one participant. All of the residents affirmed Schuh’s emphasis on treatment for addicts, but jail time for dealers. “I’ve just seen so many wrecked lives,” said Schuh.
What did not come up in the resident’s roundtable were some of the budget issues causing heartburn on the Anne Arundel County Council, which is scheduled to act on Schuh’s spending plan June 12.
County Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Republican (like Schuh), said while generally residents would be happy to get a property tax cut, they would not support some of the ways Schuh is achieving that $19 million reduction.
One of Schuh’s proposals is to extend the term of county bonds from 20 years to 30 years, allowing the county to spend more on buildings and infrastructure without increasing its debt payments.
“We’ve underinvested in infrastructure,” said Schuh. Extending the life of bonds would allow the county to “increase capital programs without having to increase the amount in the general fund.”
But it also increases the amount of interest the county pays in the long run. “One could easily make the argument that he’s making the tax break with bonds,” Walker said.
This would not sit well with county residents, he said. “This is a very fiscally conservative county.”
Walker added that the county auditor is reporting that Schuh’s budget leaves a $25 million “structural deficit” next year, in which planned expenses exceed expected revenues.
This year’s budget is balanced with money left over from this year and one-time transfers, Walker said.
“The structural deficit is my largest concern,” he said.
Chris Trumbauer, one of the three Democrats on the seven-member council, said he, too, was concerned with the structural deficit.
“Jerry and I have been on the opposite ends of a lot of different debates,” said Trumbauer, so he was happy that the two share concerns about the structural deficit and extending the life of county bonds.
Walker said he and the other council members were also concerned about the community grants Schuh had proposed for organizations outside the county on whose boards he serves.
Schuh had proposed $25,000 for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as treasurer; $10,000 for the United Way and $50,000 for the University of Maryland Medical System that includes the Shock Trauma unit. None of the organizations had received grants last year and Schuh had encouraged the organizations to apply.
But May 27, Schuh somewhat defused the controversy by withdrawing the requests for the symphony and the United Way. Schuh said he planned to continue serving on the boards, service which he had publicized during last year’s election campaign as part of giving back to the community.
He said both organizations made significant contributions to Anne Arundel. The symphony works with many children in county schools, and United Way gives $1 million to local nonprofits. Schuh said 12% of the patients at Shock Trauma were from the county.
“It’s not that any of those organizations are not doing good work,” said Trumbauer. “We just want to see those resources used for small community organizations” based in Anne Arundel County and serving local residents.
One such organization is the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the former Annapolis High School, which has been transformed into a theater, studio and performance venue.
Maryland Hall became part of a fight between Gov. Larry Hogan and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, who represents the Annapolis area. Busch has long been a legislative patron of the hall, the former Annapolis High School not far from his home.
Hogan said he was vetoing a $2 million grant for the hall and would use the money to reopen the Annapolis barracks for the Maryland State Police and add 100 state troopers, for a total of $8.2 million that Hogan had proposed in a supplemental budget.
Contrary to traditional practice, Busch did not permit that budget addition to be introduced in the closing days of the session.
The governor’s explanation makes no sense, as even his press release made clear. The $2 million for the Maryland Hall was in the capital budget coming from 15-year bonds the state was going to float, not from current revenues. Cutting the project simply reduces the state’s future debt; it doesn’t free up revenue. Hogan will have to come up with $8.2 million from somewhere else.
An interesting twist has gone little noticed: Gov. Hogan’s original capital budget had proposed spending $500,000 on the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. The House Appropriations Committee added an additional $1.5 million, quadrupling the amount of the grant in the House speaker’s district.
Schuh was not going to be drawn into the squabble. A former delegate, Schuh has good relations with Hogan, a fellow Republican, and with Democrat Busch, who also works as the county’s recreation director.
Schuh said he had not spoken to either man about the flap, but he referred to Maryland Hall as “one of the critical institutions” in the county (he was inaugurated there). He was proposing a $250,000 grant for the facility and hoping to increase it next year.