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Government & Politics

Steve Schuh Reflects

 Steven R. Schuh (R) was elected Anne Arundel County executive in 2014 following a period of great political upheaval in the diverse and politically evolving county. Former County Executive John R. Leopold (R) had resigned in disgrace in 2013, following a series of personal and political scandals, and a bitter fight ensued to replace him. A split County Council eventually opted for Howard County economic development official Laura Neuman (R) over Schuh and several other contenders. But Schuh, then a member of the House of Delegates, came back with a vengeance, ousting Neuman in the 2014 Republican primary and gliding to victory in the general election. He campaigned on promises to cut taxes while expanding and improving the county school system and other government services. Schuh has largely muscled through his agenda, but doing so hasn’t been easy. Although Republicans hold a 4-3 edge on the County Council, Schuh has feuded with several members – most notably, with a fellow Republican, Councilman Jerry Walker – and he has had to scrape to put together working majorities. Another Republican councilman, Michael A. Peroutka, has brought unwanted attention to the county due to his association with extremist national conservative groups. Still, Schuh has largely had a successful first term and is favored at this point for reelection over Democrat Steuart Pittman, a horse farmer who is running on a slow-growth platform. Schuh was one of three Republican state legislators who won county executive races in 2014, and he, along with Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman and Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, are considered part of the state GOP’s growing and formidable political bench. But in a recent lengthy interview with Maryland Matters in his spacious Annapolis office, Schuh, 57, was reluctant to speculate about his political future. Instead, Schuh spoke candidly about the ups and downs of his first term and his priorities for the years ahead if he is reelected. A lightly edited version of the interview follows: Maryland Matters: When you ran you had your governing principles: You talked about economic development, you talked about taxes, you talked about the environment. Grade yourself. How do you think you did in meeting your principal goals? Steve Schuh: Our administration had five major priorities, promises and commitments we made to the voters. One was to reduce taxes and fees to make it easier for people to live, work and retire here. On that one, we I think have done well. We have enacted the largest fee cut and the largest tax cut in county history – three straight years of property tax cuts…And then we eliminated six or eight of what I call nuisance taxes, taxes that hit lower income people. Taken all together, these account for over $65 million since fiscal 2015. And part of that commitment was to have a significant tax reduction every year… Check that box.   Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh (R)   The second priority was to improve public education, by redirecting school construction funding to neighborhood schools, particularly high schools, because the county had not built a new high school since 1982, and the average enrollment in our high schools is the highest of anywhere in the state. The idea was to move aggressively to build some really new high schools, and we’ve had some success there. We’ve broken ground on Crofton High School, that will be the first new one. Old Mill High School, we’ve purchased the land where the new Old Mill will be…That will be the 14th high school. Then, we turn our attention to West County and we have long-range development plans for a new high school in the west: Russett, Maryland City, Jessup, someplace out there. That’ll relieve Meade. The third thing we’ve done, public safety – the infrastructure, staffing levels. The record’s mixed. In terms of infrastructure, we’ve done everything I wanted to do. We’ve broken ground on the new central booking facility, we’ve broken ground on a police academy, we’ve invested in about 350 police vehicles and brought the age of the fleet down from five or six years to three. On the staffing side, I’m a little bit disappointed. We’ve added a lot of positions to the police department, and we need to, because we have this terrible gang problem in Annapolis, with these heroin dealers. We were at about 700 when I started off; we’ve added now 40 positions in the police department. Central booking effectively adds another 35 full-time employees, so that takes us just a little below 780 positions and we’ve added the final 20 positions in the [proposed fiscal 2019] budget. Here’s the bad news: The actual number of people in positions is still around 700, right where I started. MM: So you have the funding but not the person-power? Schuh: The reason is, it takes a lot of time to recruit, hire and train a police officer. We’ve had some higher than expected turnover. But the biggest problem is, I’ve come to the conclusion that our salary structure is not where it needs to be. I think the market’s talking to us…There’s also an environmental factor going on, too. Right now, it’s tough to be a police officer, and as a society we have communicated to young people who would potentially be police officers that they’re not valued, that we don’t want them…We’ve unfortunately sent mixed signals to our existing and potential police officers…Pay is part of it, and we’re going to address that in our budget. MM: How? By making more money available? Salary bumps, basically? Schuh: Right. A lot. I’m not going to monkey with it. It’s going to be a very significant change. The third priority was reforming county government – that’s a grab-bag of things. We’ve achieved most of what I wanted to accomplish there, but there have been some disappointments. The budget is balanced and in surplus. That’s good. We’ve launched an enormous technology upgrade effort, $50 million over six years, and we needed to, because we were so far behind. We have made good progress on reforming the land use departments, but I would say not as much as I wanted. Procurement, we got [rejected by] the voters on that one. We want to apply more business principles and accelerate the process. It’s incredible how long it takes to buy something and how inefficient the process is. We went to the voters with what I thought was a very good reform, and the voters rejected it. So we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board to reform procurement. We reorganized the entire government reporting structure and created the core group system. Are you aware of that? MM: Tell me about it. Schuh: The government was organized like most large corporate organizations. Very siloed. Everything in its separate tube. The consequence of that was departments of like-kind had no communications with each other, even if they needed to to effect their business plans. So we created a series of core groups that combines like-kind departments. For example, public safety. Police, fire, detention, parole and probation, along with affiliates like the state’s attorney and sheriff, all are part of the public safety core group. Being part of a core group means they meet once a month, in my conference room, with me present, as well as the chief administrative officer and chief of staff, and talk through every item of mutual interest. The doors are barred, locked and chained, so nobody escapes, and everything is cleared off the docket. MM: Who sets the agenda? You? Schuh: Everyone…There’s always a long agenda. These are two-hour meetings. They’ve been very effective, and we’ve actually received some national recognition for running the government that way. The last piece is quality of life and I think we’ve done a nice job there. We’ve launched the largest waterway cleanup effort in county history and it’s absolutely working, it’s absolutely helping. It’s not to be credited with the full improvements we’ve seen in waterway health because they’re after two decades’ worth of work, but we’ve been contributing. On the other side of that coin is recreational infrastructure, which Anne Arundel County had done very little of historically. We have done a lot there with building up a network of bicycle trails, opening up these boat ramps. Three years ago, we had no county-owned boat ramps. We’ve opened swimming beaches. We’ve got two library projects under construction. I’m really excited about that. Thirty years from now, the only thing we’ve done that’s really going to matter in the long history of the county is the school construction. We were dead in the water on school construction and there was a general consensus to let the enrollment in these schools just grow and grow and grow, and pretty soon we would have had 5,000-person high schools, I have no doubt. MM: So how do you win the hearts and minds on a question like that? Schuh: I think it was a matter of showing people the relevant information, which included the statistics on school size…The only people who were really talking about it three years ago were [House Speaker] Mike Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and me. I think as we talked about it, people started to see that we really did have a problem, and then Amalie Brandenburg, the education officer – first of her kind in Anne Arundel County – started circulating to anyone that would listen the very substantive academic literature on the correlation between school size and academic performance, and behavior pattern and employee satisfaction. Once people became convinced that we were serious about funding school construction – maybe the root of the logjam was nobody believed the county would actually support the massive cost of stepping up the school construction effort. And once they saw that we weren’t kidding, they were like, ok, let’s go. MM: When you got in there was some skepticism about significant tax and fee cuts and whether that would hamstring your ability to do some of the things you wanted to do, including more money for school construction. You haven’t found that to be a challenge so far? Schuh: No, and it’s for two reasons. One is, we changed our bond program to extend the life of our bonds…The other part is, we are in a ‘have our cake and eat it, too” economy. The county is booming and we’re able to give some portion of those incremental revenues back to the taxpayer while still having additional revenue over the prior year to make the investments we’ve been talking about. So it just goes to show that it’s great to be county executive during an economic boom, and it’s a lot less fun when you’re in a contracting economic cycle. There’s not anything magic to it. It’s just a little bit of luck and a little bit of good financial management. MM: You talked about crime a little bit. Are you satisfied that the boom in the county is extending to communities in the North County, that are a little more crime-ridden, that have more poverty? How do you get there? Schuh: The boom is hitting all of Anne Arundel County. The North County definitely has the most challenges and we are trying to direct some extra attention to the North Country. We have just redone our revitalization tax credit to direct more development to the North County area, and I do believe the future of development in the county is going to be much more with revitalization development than it is with greenfields. I think the greenfield development of Anne Arundel County has largely played itself out. We’ve also tried to focus some quality of life initiatives up there that are unique. We’ve had our anti-rat program, and that’s had some tremendous success in reducing the rodent population in North County. We also distributed as part of that same program 10,000 industrial strength trash cans to every resident. In this coming budget, we will for the first time have an alley reconstruction budget. The alleys in the North County are now all 70 or 80 years old and have never been redone. But you’re right, when you look at the hot spots for crime and look at the overdoses, it’s mostly the North County, with some pockets in Annapolis and some in other places. MM: How would you describe your relationship with the Council during the course of your term? Schuh: It’s been a challenging Council, but we’ve worked well together. Ultimately, I believe the Council has passed 96 percent of our legislation. It’s been a good working relationship, it’s been a successful working relationship, but it’s not been an easy working relationship. MM: Did that surprise you? Schuh: Yes, I was very surprised, because on its face, it looked like we had a strong working majority, but as it turns out our administration has been working from the position of a minority. That ok. I’m used to that from the legislature – I know what it’s like to live in the minority. It makes you have to work a little harder. You have to be a little more compromising. But at the end of the day we got all the legislation passed, with very few exceptions. MM: With some interesting coalitions, for lack of a better term. Schuh: That’s the art of compromise. Yes, we got 96 percent of our bills passed. Did they all pass in the form I wanted them? No. Did we have to compromise, find some middle ground? Yes. If you look at the span of all those votes, you’ll see that there’s no consistent pattern. Sometimes we’d team up with Councilman [Peter I.] Smith (D). Sometimes we’d team up with Councilman [Andrew C.] Pruski (D). Sometimes we’d team up with Councilman [Christopher J.] Trumbauer (D). It just depended on the issue. But they all, for the most part, were willing to work with us on certain issues, and that’s why we were able to assemble majorities on particular pieces of legislation, even if we didn’t have a working majority going into any piece of legislation. I’m hoping that that will change. I’m hoping that we have a working majority in the next administration, assuming there is one. MM: I have to ask – what’s up with you and Councilman Walker? Schuh: Well, um, I don’t really know. Councilman Walker has ambitions he has not been shy about sharing. He wants to be county executive one day and I think he made a strategic decision with our administration to perhaps be oppositional from time to time, that it would perhaps increase the awareness of his brand. That’s my guess. I don’t know. You’re more of a student on this stuff than I am. I thought you totally understood it. MM: I think, as you said, a lot of people expected you to have this working majority and it hasn’t always been there, so it’s been an interesting phenomenon. Schuh: I have very few disappointments in this job. I feel grateful to have it, and honored to have it, every day. I’ve been horrified by this opiate situation and I’ve been very disappointed by the difficulty of working with the Council. Both of those things surprised me. But other than that, it’s been pretty much what I expected. MM: Some of these relationships with councilmembers I guess are rather transactional. You can work with someone on issue X but not on issue Y. Schuh: I think that’s true with most of them. I don’t think there’s a single councilman that works with us all the time on everything. They’re all independent-minded people, and one of our strongest allies is Councilman [Michael A.] Peroutka (R), but he’s never voted for a budget and I’m betting he’s not going to vote on the next one, either. We unfortunately don’t have universal support from any of the councilmen, but I don’t think you can expect that. MM: Are you concerned from a political standpoint about some of Councilman Peroutka’s more extreme politics and his association with Roy Moore and other controversial political causes? Schuh: Well, Michael is an incredibly interesting person, a very nice person and a very professional person. He does have some – quirky, might be the word, certainly different – political interests from your garden variety councilman and those interests tend to run in the national direction and pertain to constitutional rights, an important subject matter. But they’re usually not of interest to your typical councilmember. Whatever those interests of his are, and whatever energy he puts into those other areas of interest, he never brings them into the Council. It’s never part of the work of the Council. He has been an excellent councilman. He has done a very fine job. And what I really appreciate about Michael Peroutka is, he never lies to us, he never misleads us, he always tells us where he stands. And when he does vote against us, he tells us why and I’m usually left without too many good arguments – which drives me crazy! He’s a person who knows what he thinks and why he thinks it, and it’s very hard to argue with someone like that. I think his constituents appreciate the constituent work he’s done, appreciate the professionalism, the grace that he brings and good manners than he brings to the deliberations of the Council. He’s kind of the adult in the room and whatever he does on his own time with national politics and the Institute on the Constitution, they’re his hobbies. MM: Given the experiences of your first term, are you working aggressively to elect a more cooperative Council? Are you getting involved in some of the races? Schuh: I’ve endorsed some of the Council candidates, ones that I’ve known for a long, long time and have personal relationships with. My general rule is that in contested primaries, I do not endorse. But I will support all credible candidates…I have endorsed Michael Peroutka, he’s a sitting councilman so he gets my endorsement. I’ve endorsed [former county GOP Chairman] Nathan Volke in District 3, because he and I have worked so closely together, for 12 years. He was one of our interns, going back to the House of Delegates. He’s like a son to me. I’ve also endorsed [attorney] Jessica Haire in 7. MM: One of things I’ve heard a little is, your first few years, you were very pro-development, and the economy has inarguably prospered. Now you may be looking to put the brakes on the level of development in the county. That’s obviously one of Steuart Pittman’s big criticisms. How are you addressing the issue? Schuh: That’s his storyline. I don’t really agree with that. I think we’ve always tried to approach things in a rational and intelligent manner. We’ve tried to employ principles of smart growth. We want to guide growth to where there is public infrastructure – utilities, schools, roads and public safety infrastructure. That’s generally what has happened. My friend Steuart forgets that he and I worked very closely together on a piece of legislation called the Rural Conservation Line that effectively takes 51 percent of the land mass of this county off the table from a development perspective. So I’m not sure the thesis that I’m Mr. Go-Go Development really stands up to scrutiny… I think over the years – and we’re 3 ½ years in – it’s become more apparent that the land use policy needs some adjustment, and those adjustments are subject to various pieces of legislation we have before the legislature. Those bills have been in gestation for a year, long before Steuart Pittman came along, and were the subject of intensive study by our new planning and zoning officer when he arrived 10 months ago. So these bills didn’t just appear out of whole cloth. They were the product of a lot of study and intensive review that have built up over the last 3 ½ years. We didn’t have the knowledge in the first year of this administration. Land use is the most complex thing that local government does. MM: Related to that, I would ask you about two projects I hear a lot about. One is finding a home for the Chesapeake Bayhawks [a professional lacrosse team that plays in the county], and the other is the disposition of the abandoned Crownsville Hospital site. Talk about the status of these projects and your goals. Schuh: There’s three separate issues that have gotten all balled together. There’s Crownsville Hospital, there’s the Bayhawks, and there’s the Anne Arundel County Fair. The hospital is a derelict facility on hundreds of acres of state-owned property. The state offered to have the county take title to the property; we declined, as has every previous administration, due to the vast cost of the environmental cleanup. The state is now considering whether to surplus the property or do something with it. That’s the state’s business. We don’t care. I’ve told the state that we will cooperate with whatever they decide to do… Then you have the Bayhawks. They want to find a place for a stadium. They’ve looked in Prince George’s County, they’ve looked in Baltimore City, they’ve looked in various places in Anne Arundel County. They are residents in Anne Arundel County now, they play at the Naval Stadium. I want them to stay here. I’d like to see the stadium in Anne Arundel County somewhere. They at first talked to the state about locating at the hospital. That appeared problematic. I don’t know why that sort of fell by the boards, but I think that was a difficult conversation with the state. So then they decided they would look at the fairgrounds, and that opened up a big mess, and a lot of speculation arose that Anne Arundel County was working with the Bayhawks or had made a deal with the Bayhawks, and the whole thing was wired for sound, and we were going to cram a stadium in there. The county has no interest in the project, we have not greenlighted a project, we have received no specific proposals, we have seen nothing the public hasn’t seen. If they can work out a deal with the fairgrounds to have a stadium there and share that location – there’s enough room there, I’m told – that’s their business…We’re not a party to that conversation. The fairgrounds have said that they want nothing to do with that concept, so that means it’s dead. MM: Is there an optimal scenario, in your view, for the hospital and/or the fairgrounds? Schuh: We need more youth athletic facilities. We need tournament-level playing fields. The logical place to put our playing fields would be near a stadium. So if a stadium does emerge out of these discussions, I’d love to put playing fields next to it… My message to people on this is, relax. It’s much ado about nothing right now… It’s three separate things. Conspiracy theorists being what they are, they tried to put it all together as one ball of wax, and they’re really not. They’re three separate things and our role is really limited right now. MM: In terms of the campaign ahead, you’ve got a record to run on. Will there be a new set of promises and principles? Schuh: Yes. We’re working on them now. Tentatively calling it Agenda 2022, but that could change. There are five or six things, maybe seven, that I think need to be priorities for any next administration. One is intelligently managing our land and waterways in the context of the general development plan, and that’s going to mean, if it’s our administration, smart growth, preservation of the rural lands. I want to take the principles of the Rural Conservation Line legislation, which did fail, and try to imbed them into the general development plan. The second thing is, Anne Arundel County is an immensely prosperous place. We are now in the top 25 of 3,000 U.S. counties in median household income. It’s incredible. Median household income is now $92,000. But there are a lot of people who are suffering, and a lot of them who are out of the way, unseen. There’s probably 80,000 people with mental health problems or have a co-occurring addiction problem. 25,000 people with a heroin addiction. We have several thousand people living in substandard public housing, in Anne Arundel County. Not Baltimore City. Here. We have probably 300 homeless people… There are 70,000 people now elderly, facing the challenges of old age. There’s an uncountable number of people who are food insecure. Those people should not be left behind in all this prosperity, and we need to make sure we’re giving those people a helping hand to meet the challenges that they face. Not a handout – we’re Republican here. But a helping hand. And we’re determined to do that. What we’re going to do varies by group. In the case of the public housing population, we are rehabilitating every one of our public housing communities, through public-private partnerships, using developer funds, and as part of the bargain, we’re giving them land adjacent to the public facilities, so they can put in market housing, so when it’s all said and done, we wind up with a rehabilitated public housing stock but now a mixed-used community instead of a pile of desperately poor people all shoved in together. In the case of people with food insecurity, we operate the SNAP program, but beyond that we’re working with private providers to help people who are insecure. We’ve stepped up our grantmaking program…We’re making huge investments to serve people with addictions. We’re going to have a multimillion-dollar grant to BWMC in this budget, which will dramatically expand the number of treatment beds. The third thing is improving the system of public education. We’ve done a nice job on school construction. We’re making real progress on improving teacher pay. But the next crisis is student-teacher ratios. We have 120 core classrooms where student-teacher ratios exceed 35-1, and some of them, 40-1. My goal is to eliminate all such classrooms over the next two years, and once we’ve done that, to turn our attention to all classrooms that are 30 students to a teacher. That’s a much longer proposition… Public safety is the fourth thing. There’s nothing new there. It’s gangs and heroin. We’re going to have to step up our police force…We’re also going to need to increase our fire service. Right now we have just about 800 professional firefighters, and we need to be up over 900… I don’t know if this one’s going to make it into the final agenda for the next administration, but we need to invest more in our people. We have very good county employees, and I’ve been very surprised at the level of county employees. I came in like many businesspeople with a predisposition that government employees were all slackers and that’s absolutely not the case. We have very strong employees, but we have really underinvested in training our employees. We’re going to have to establish much more fulsome training budgets and requirements for county employees. We also need to incorporate more private sector concepts, such as at-will deputies. Right now, all of our staff, up until the director level, is merit, union-protected and is effectively beyond management. And we need to manage our employees. MM: I imagine the unions won’t be too happy about that. Schuh: No. It’s going to be a discussion. Though we’re only talking about a small number of people. But the one the employees are really not going to like is pay for performance and real performance appraisals. Right now, under current performance appraisal systems, everybody gets an A. We’re going to have a real system of evaluation. We’re starting next year with the non-union employees, and we’re going to test-drive it and make it work properly and then we’re going to roll it out to the unions. Technology investment, to make sure they have the tools they need to do their jobs. And then, lastly is maintaining our economic prosperity by moderating our taxes and fees, as we’ve been doing, but also doubling our efforts to help people get the job skills they need to participate. There are about 10,000 chronically jobless people  in Anne Arundel County – people who are able-bodied and could work if they had the skills. So we want to work with them through our Workforce Development Corporation and connect them with jobs. Here’s another one: We have a $750 million maintenance backlog. And whenever recessions come, the first two things that go are marketing and maintenance. And government doesn’t market, so we just cut maintenance. Maintenance has been slashed. So it’s the road budget, that’s $120 million. It’s the school budget, that’s $350 million, our county buildings, $40 million. Throw in the library system, the community college and some public utilities, and before you know it, you’re at $750 million. We’re going to have to develop unique strategies to deal with that, because there isn’t $750 million lying around, and we’re throwing everything we’ve got at the school construction program. So we need to figure out creative ways – again, with the private sector, maybe, as we’re doing with public housing – to deal with some of these issues by piggy-backing private sector capital. Not sexy. It’s hard to get a room lit up on fixing a maintenance backlog, but it’s important. MM: So my last question is, what do you want to be when you grow up? People are always wondering what the next political move for you would be. Are you thinking that far down the road? Schuh: I want to be the guy that stops heroin in Anne Arundel County. That’s what I want to be. This is beyond anyone’s imagination, the wreckage, the sadness, that this is creating. It’s destroying people’s lives, it’s wrecking their finances. People are losing children, grandchildren, kids losing parents. It’s just unbelievable. MM: A worthy goal. Schuh: That will be my number one priority for the next administration. [email protected]   


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Steve Schuh Reflects