Photo above: Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh talks about his tax cut and spending priorities with residents of Chelsea Beach in Pasadena. From left, Tammi Holmes, Schuh, Ray Sharp, Emma Hammond and Fred Lezert.
This is an updated version of a column that appears in the June issue of The Business Monthly newspaper that came out Tuesday.
By Len Lazarick
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 last Wednesday, 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. All were promises he made throughout last year’s campaign.
But how was he going to 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, 81.
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-run 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 residents’ roundtable were some of the budget issues causing heartburn on the County Council, which is scheduled to act on Schuh’s spending plan next week.
The council held a hearing on the tax cut proposal Monday night, with Schuh himself testifying for the cut, along with three delegates, a senator and two citizens.
In an interview last Wednesday, 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 under-invested 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, Walker observed.
“One could easily make the argument that he’s making the tax break with bonds,” he said.
This would not sit well with county residents, Walker said. “This is a very fiscally conservative county.”
Walker also noted that the state of Maryland only issues bonds for 15 years.
The shorter bond length is one of the fiscally prudent policies bond rating agencies routinely cite in granting their top triple-A rating for Maryland’s general obligation bonds.
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.
Only Councilman Michael Peroutka has said he will support the tax cut.
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 last Wednesday, 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 that 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 County. 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, the highest percentage after Baltimore City.
“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.