Weekly Letter: More Budgeting

Sign up to receive County Executive Pittman's Weekly Letter to be the first to learn about big announcements, and get an inside look at issues crossing the County Executive's desk.


Here on the fourth floor of the Arundel Center, we’re in the thick of thirty-three departmental budget presentations. Here’s how it works.

Long before these meetings, the department leadership sits with an analyst from our Budget Office to review their books. Their first job is to agree on a base budget for the coming year. That includes projected payroll, supplies, contracts, and everything else that it takes to maintain the services that the agency is tasked to provide. A base budget usually includes both cuts and additions from the current year, depending on cost projections. It does not include new positions or new purchases.

Any proposed new spending also gets discussed between the department and the budget analysts, but is presented as a “supplemental request.” The supplementals are ranked in order of priority and go on the agenda for the meetings with me and my team, but the analysts either do or do not recommend that we fund each one, and those recommendations are shared with the department before our meetings.

So a lot is at stake for these department directors and their teams when they walk into our conference room during the month of March. They generally have 30 minutes or an hour to get through presentations and to answer our questions. Sometimes they start out disagreeing with proposed cuts to their base budgets, and then they make a pitch for each supplemental request, whether it was recommended by the budget office or not.

I am careful to listen and ask questions but never to make a decision on the spot. That’s important, because nothing is final until all the math is done.

New schools opening, increased costs, and the need to staff agencies in a competitive compensation environment have made this a year when we warn departments that most supplemental requests will be rejected. But the people running these departments are on the front line, delivering the services to our residents, and they see and feel the need. That’s why their presentations are sometimes passionate. They want me to know the human suffering that could result from a request being rejected.

This week was especially hard. We had the departments who serve the most vulnerable residents in our county, the ones facing eviction, mental health crises, gun violence, and hunger. Many received federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help them address the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, impacts that hit our lowest-income families the hardest.

We’ve hit the fiscal cliff, the end of those funds, and we told these departments that any request to continue a service that had been funded by ARPA should be presented as a supplemental request. The budget office made the correct determination that decisions about funding these requests were policy calls for the county executive to make, so they recommended none of them.  Unfortunately, any non-recommended supplemental that we fund puts the budget in a deficit unless cuts are made elsewhere, revenues exceed expectations, or revenues are enhanced through rate increases. Here are a few of this week’s examples.

The Partnership for Children, Youth, and Families has asked for $600,000 to continue rent assistance for families facing eviction, $350,000 for children navigating immigration law, $50,000 to help families seeking childcare services, and $1.5 million for the Food Bank to continue addressing food insecurity.

The Department of Social Service has asked for $288,000 to continue funding SNAP (formerly food stamps), and $284,000 to maintain services at Sarah’s House, the county’s only homeless shelter for families.

Detention has asked for $430,000 to continue Community Action Agency’s outstanding re-entry program, Turnaround Thursday.

And the Mental Health Agency has asked for $1.3 million to prevent a cut in service from our Crisis Intervention System, without which they project that two thousand residents would be denied help.

My math puts the cost of these requests at $4.8 million. If we paid for it from an increase in the income tax, the cost to a person earning $100,000 per year, with a taxable income of $80,000 would be a little under $40 per year. That’s the nature of the decisions we face as we budget.

We face it with public safety, education, and every department of county government. And then we consider what decisions will be supported by a majority of the County Council; how decisions impact our ability to hire the staff that we need to provide services; how decisions impact the businesses that provide jobs, products, and services to our residents; how decisions impact our efforts to protect open space, nature, waterways, and climate; how decisions impact equity; and how decisions impact the health and wellness of our residents.

What never enters the calculation - for me, my staff, or any of the department directors - is political philosophy. It’s never about whether government is too big or too little, or whether the private sector or government is better at solving problems. It’s always about finding the most efficient way to do stuff - with government, with nonprofits, with businesses - that almost everyone cares about.

Yes, budgeting is about values, but political boundaries don’t contribute to good decision-making. I understand why we have parties, pledges, and pandering in politics, but they all get in the way of governing, especially at budget time.

Sorry, no news today about what gets funded or what it will cost. That comes when I propose a budget to the County Council in their chambers at 11 am on May 1. Hope to see you there.

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive