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Neuman playing catch-up in Anne Arundel County

When Laura A. Neuman was appointed Anne Arundel County executive in February, the former entrepreneur and economic development official saw it as an opportunity to help her home county.

Anne Arundel County Executive Laura A. Neuman

What the 48-year-old did not immediately see were some of the deep flaws in the local government.

Certainly, she was aware of the indiscretions of ousted County Executive John R. Leopold and the culture his jailing left behind. But she also assumed that in government offices where officials toiled to serve more than a half-million people, the telephones worked.

She was wrong.

“Candidly, our county is 20 years behind,” Neuman said, remembering that her first phone call from the county executive’s office started with harsh static and ended with buttons falling from the telephone. “In the early days, it was triage.”

Neuman, who said this summer she will seek a full term as county executive in 2014, has spent the past six months trying to fix the phones, the police and fire departments and the business and tax climate of Anne Arundel County.

“It’s not difficult,” Neuman, a Republican, said of her first time holding public office. “There’s just a lot to do.”

In a recent wide-ranging interview with The Daily Record staff, Neuman said some of the deficiencies in county government were “striking” but that through a collaborative approach with her constituents and other officials, she’s made progress.

“I did walk into a very challenging situation,” she said, noting that the county has no electronic record-keeping and is on a “1980s” email system.

“I was surprised at the real state of the county and the conditions in the county. I was also surprised by the lack of investment in basic tools to serve the citizens of the county,” Neuman said.

The former chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority for Howard County wasted little time making her presence felt in Anne Arundel County.

One of the first things the new county executive did when appointed by the seven-member County Council to finish Leopold’s term was veto legislation that set the framework for Anne Arundel’s stormwater fee, a charge derided by opponents as the “rain tax.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly decided last year that the 10 most populous counties in the state would have to charge their residents and business owners such a fee to pay for stormwater remediation and upgrades to stormwater management systems.

The County Council overrode Neuman’s veto, but the county executive had sent a message that she was there to push change.

“It is probably the galvanizing issue for our county,” Neuman said, adding she had received “thousands” of emails about the charge. The fee was mandated by the state in response to federal directives to improve Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Neuman said unless other states also in the bay’s watershed made changes, Maryland’s fee wouldn’t stem pollution.

“They sort of pushed it back down to the county, and I think it should have been dealt with at the state if not the national level,” she said. “I think the legislature handed us a bad deal, and they should have done the hard work and dealt with it or taken it to the national level.”

Neuman lost the battle over the rain tax but said she is focused on bettering the county in other ways, including promoting economic development. She said she helped “redefine economic development” during her time in Howard County and has brought that attitude to Anne Arundel, where she says 25 million square feet of development are in the pipeline.

She said Maryland is a challenging place to lure businesses because of its overall tax climate — the Washington-based Tax Foundation ranks Maryland 41st among the states for its tax burden on business — but county government could take steps to help retain the businesses already here.

It boils down to customer service, Neuman said, reciting a story about acting as a liaison between a county business and the state Department of Assessments and Taxation in order to resolve a longstanding tax issue.

“Economic development is about making it an attractive place to do business; it’s not just about job creation,” Neuman said. “If you make it easier for people to do business in your community, they’re more likely to come and do business there.”

After a long career in the private sector, Neuman said she brought with her the mindset needed to make the county business-friendly. So successful was she during her career that she accomplished every professional (and personal) goal by the time she was 39 years old, she said.

That set up her desire to give back by working for government, a new goal that started to be realized in Howard County.

“When I took the position in Howard County, I had already given some thought to public service, and it was a motivating factor,” Neuman said. “I believe it was a great training ground. … Running an election or running a campaign doesn’t really prepare you for running the county. Working in county government prepared me for running the county.”

How she runs it, she said, is a bit unorthodox. Rather than appointing members to various commissions and groups she’s formed — including a transportation commission and commission on excellence — she advertises in the community, soliciting interest from stakeholders rather than going through a Rolodex and handpicking participants.

While she was not immediately sold on running for election once her term expires, she quickly realized upon starting the job that there were too many things that needed to be repaired before she could willingly step away.

“I’m prone to say this wouldn’t be an interesting job to me if everything was running really smoothly,” Neuman said. “I wasn’t looking for a job, I was looking to make a difference.

“I intend to serve only as long as it’s helpful. … When that is done, I’ll move on to whatever comes next.”

Could the governor’s office be next?

“I get the question often. I hadn’t thought about it going into this,” Neuman said, appearing flattered and not at all dismissive of the idea. “I don’t know what to say to that, honestly.”