It’s hard to get anyone to read a story about budgets.

Gotta have ‘em, of course. There are plenty of analyses showing that robust local journalism prevents wasteful spending and keeps taxes low. But, oh my God, covering a budget can be boring.

Painfully earnest town hall meetings are underway now, a parade of people explaining why their cause needs more money and how shortchanging them will rain damnation on us all.

OK. I went overboard a bit on that last bit. It is true, however, that most people don’t want to read anything, including the words government and budget.

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To those of you who have made it to this fifth paragraph, congratulations. Here’s your reward:

Chris Trumbauer — the most unlikely budget director you’ll ever meet.

Maybe it’s because he’s a chemist who spent nine years as a state “water quality guy,” five years puttering around the South River as an environmental watchdog, eight years representing Annapolis on the Anne Arundel County Council, and five more shaping messages on good outcomes for a communications firm. Maybe it’s because he’s an ultra-distance runner who completed the Boston and Philadelphia marathons last year.

Or maybe it’s because when County Executive Steuart Pittman really, really wants something, the Democrat often seems to count on his unconventional budget director to make the difference. The result has been a de-escalation of budget politics in a county long known as passionately tax averse.

“What I appreciate about him is that he was in the council role working in the minority party,” said Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler, a Republican from Arnold. “He has that experience working across the aisle getting things done. That makes him very different from any other budget director we’ve ever had.”

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Pittman, who hired Trumbauer in 2018 for the new job of “policy and communications director,” appointed him budget director two years later because, well, no one else wanted the job when it opened unexpectedly. Trumbauer is not an accountant. However, he dove into the budget process under previous administrations and absorbed every nuance as half of a council “Odd Couple” with Jerry Walker, a Republican from Crofton.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, let’s just put Trumbauer over there,’” Trumbauer said recently, sitting in an Annapolis coffee shop. “‘He’s the only one that cares about the math. He’s the one that really gets into the budget.’”

He acknowledged there’s no straight line to this job on his resume.

“My career doesn’t make any sense.”

Score one for the bullies: Threats and boos kill Quiet Waters environmental center

Unless you care about public policy.

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“If you’re a diehard environmentalist, and you want to do more, get involved in the money side. That’s important, right?” he said. “I wish more people that have my passion for the environment got involved in politics and got involved in government decision-making positions because that’s where so much of the action happens.”

Technically, the budget officer doesn’t write checks. That’s the finance director.

What Trumbauer and his office do is storytelling, where the characters are priorities and obligations and the action takes place in the land of money. This year, that land totals $2.16 billion.

“The budget is one giant story,” he said. “And if you can look under the hood and see really what’s going on, it helps you figure out what happened in the past but then present that going forward, which is ultimately what budget is all about. What are you gonna do next year, and the years after that, right?”

Trumbauer learned the importance of telling a story while at the Hatcher Group, a communications firm focused on nonprofits, environmental causes and government initiatives. The techniques he learned there include words such as empathy and passion and can be seen in tech upgrades he brought to the budget office, including software that assistant budget director Steve Theroux uses to visualize spending numbers.

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“We’ll be looking at something like, ‘Hey, you know, why is this particular thing costing so much this year? It hasn’t cost that much in the last couple of years.’ He’ll [Theroux] find a way to graph it and bring in other variables so you can compare it, and then it helps tell the story, right?”

If there is a hero in Trumbauer’s budget narrative, it’s Pittman. Trumbauer is an unapologetic partisan for the executive’s goals and profile. There he was on Twitter highlighting his boss’ interaction with Oprah Winfrey during the inauguration of Gov. Wes Moore.

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But the take on Trumbauer among Republicans is that he’s fair. There is no fiscal legerdemain, just a story about the power of money — 533 pages long.

If trash and recycling fees need to go up, the administration just says it, rather than worry about the political fallout.

“Just tell them. We want government to work and if that’s what it costs to pick up your trash, we’ll go out and make the case: ‘Hey, you want to have trash picked up? This is what we’ve got to do,’” Trumbauer said. “And we think that people will believe that that’s necessary.”

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The result has been effective at getting money through the Democratic-majority council without making enemies out of Republicans.

“He knows how to make it work,” said Councilman Nathan Volke, a Republican from Pasadena and a frequent critic of the administration. “That’s his value to Steuart Pittman.”

Right now, the story is between chapters.

Chapter One was Pittman coming into office in late 2018 and focusing on things the previous administration rejected in its final $1.6 billion budget, such as bigger raises for teachers and police or larger increases in education spending. Getting to $1.7 billion the next year required modest tax increases and using a state-authored detour around the voter-imposed property tax revenue cap that has kept the tax rate the lowest in the region.

“We were able to hold the line for the next three years, thanks in part to the federal fiscal recovery funds, but also, I think, thanks in large part to smart budgeting,” Trumbauer said.

Pitman’s current budget was adopted on a 6-1 vote in June that crossed party lines. It benefited from a robust economy recovering from the worst of the pandemic, and the last bits of federal recovery spending.

“I think it’s satisfying to [Pittman] and to me, personally, that we got a bipartisan consensus budget, which I suspect would have been unanimous if one of the council members hadn’t been running against him and felt like she couldn’t,” Trumbauer said.

One result was that Moody’s, an investment risk assessment firm, goosed the bond rating for the county to AAA. The change makes it cheaper for the county to finance some of the $572 million in construction spending on schools, roads, bridges, stormwater, parks and libraries with long-term securities. Investors buy them, but accept lower returns in exchange for greater stability.

The other was defanging taxes and spending as an effective campaign issue, helping Pittman win reelection over Republican Councilwoman Jessica Haire by 8 percentage points.

The next budget, to be unveiled this spring, is likely to be a less ambitious chapter of Trumbauer’s story of county money. There won’t be a plot twist like the one represented by Moore, who relied on surpluses to propose greater state spending on schools and filling employee vacancies.

There is likely to be continued funding for climate change resilience, something Trumbauer said bond rating agencies all asked about, and more money for education, given the state commitment. The county has $132.7 million in reserves to cope with the drama of a downturn in the economy.

“We’re going to be back in, I think, a post-pandemic new normalcy,” Trumbauer said. “But we’re also going to be looking at an economic climate where most economists are forecasting a short or shallow recession in the next 12 to 18 months. And maybe that won’t happen, but maybe it will. But either way, I think we’re as prepared as the county could possibly be.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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