If you pay attention to local government, you are undoubtedly following budget deliberations this time of year.

For the rest of you, well, your lack of interest is understandable. Too many numbers and not enough pictures.

Money drives policy, though, and local government budgets are a form of pure power. Control the purse, control a community’s destiny.

Spending decisions in Maryland’s big six counties this spring will affect the lives of 4 million people — more than the residents of Alaska, Wyoming, New Hampshire and Delaware combined. That’s 65% of Maryland’s population, and the money accounts for three-quarters of local government spending in this state.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Montgomery County, though, is the beast that beats them all.

The budget proposed for the D.C. suburb for the fiscal year starting July 1 is a whopping $7.1 billion, more than the combined spending plans of Anne Arundel, Howard and Frederick — plus seven of the state’s 16 smaller counties.

Why should you care about this if you live in Annapolis, Baltimore, Towson, or Ellicott City? What happens there affects the rest of us.

Don’t believe me? Look at Anne Arundel, a purple county with a historically tax-averse electorate.

Montgomery County’s executive had 10 budget conversations with the public this year to help set priorities. Anne Arundel followed the example, ramping up from two to seven in the last decade.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Millions are being set aside to support affordable housing projects in Montgomery. Now Anne Arundel does the same.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich addressed the shortage of nationwide police officers by adopting a drone first-responder program. In this budget, he wants to add a third flying robot.

As Anne Arundel and other counties raise police salaries again to improve recruitment, how long do you think it will take for that idea to expand across the state?

Part of this is a function of scale. Montgomery is Maryland’s largest county, with 1.06 million residents, according to the U.S. Census. Its spending tracks that number.

The county has a gross economic product of more than $106.7 billion a year — that’s bigger than 13 states. Baltimore County is a far-distant second in Maryland, at $63.8 billion.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Montgomery benefits from the federal government next door in Washington, D.C., but it’s also a hub for bioscience, research and hospitality companies. Its residents are well-educated and well-off, with a $108,048 median household income.

No contrast may be sharper than one with its Capital Beltway neighbor.

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks had to step away from her hotly contested U.S. Senate primary race to announce a projected budget shortfall of $171 million for the coming fiscal year. She froze open positions and cut all spending, except for schools and police.

With 947,880 residents, Prince George’s is Maryland’s second-most populous county. It lost income tax revenue during the pandemic. Rather than raise property taxes to close the gap, Alsobrooks said she put money into economic development initiatives that she hopes will expand the commercial tax base.

“I have specifically avoided raising taxes,” she said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Even with that, her $5.4 billion budget spends $1,000 less per person than the $6,761 in more affluent Montgomery County.

Nowhere does Montgomery County’s spending matter more than in schools. Every executive in the big six counties bragged this spring about how much they were proposing for their local school board.

Steuart Pittman in Anne Arundel: “Failure to deliver would have been that pause in progress that we ruled out.”

Jessica Fitzwater in Frederick County: “I am proud to continue our focus on our youth, especially through the historic investment we have already made in our schools.”

Even if the money wasn’t all local, they took a bow.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball touted the fact that his proposed budget “exceeds $1 billion for the third year in a row,” including state and federal funding.

Montgomery County topped them all, with Elrich noting that his $106.8 million boost in schools spending represents “the third largest ever increase for MCPS.”

That alone was more than the school budget in nine of Maryland’s counties.

The $3.3 billion for Montgomery County schools would pay for teacher raises and positions funded by expiring federal pandemic relief funds. The county spends $12,831 per student in local funds in the current fiscal year.

Only one county spends significantly more per student, tiny Worcester County on the Eastern Shore. It spends $15,799. But the student population there is almost 24 times smaller than Montgomery County’s.

Even Howard County, where taxpayers pay the state’s highest median property tax bill to support excellent schools, only tops Montgomery’s per-pupil spending by a negligible $17.

Maryland steps in to balance the scales on school spending. Baltimore City and poor, rural Somerset County get the biggest lift, topping $17,000 per student in the current fiscal year.

More money is coming. Each of the big six county executives said their contributions went well over the state’s maintenance of effort standard. That’s the minimum to keep existing programs going despite rising costs.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will increase state spending on public schools by $3.8 billion each year through 2032. Counties have to find money for new programs required by the plan, such as expanded job training in Anne Arundel.

Squeezed by lower income tax revenues, falling real estate transfer taxes, structural deficits and inflation, some counties have had to get creative.

Alsobrooks had her budget cuts and frozen positions.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski will ask voters in November to approve hundreds of millions in borrowing for school construction. He’ll be on the ballot, too; he’s running for the open 2nd District congressional seat.

Other counties have been more fortunate.

In Anne Arundel, Pittman turned to permit and 911 fee increases, plus a small income tax increase for people making between $75,000 and $480,000, to cover a $13.6 million shortfall in covering its obligations such as cost-of-living increases for employees. Property tax rates went up only a fraction of a penny.

Montgomery County, meanwhile, funded its top priorities without asking for a tax hike.

Its property tax rate is less than a penny more than Anne Arundel’s, but higher real estate values mean annual tax bills are about $700 more per property owner. Income tax revenue comprises 24% of Montgomery County’s budget, but only 14% of the Prince George’s budget

Even its problems influence other counties. As job growth stagnates, home prices rise and roads get more congested, residents have moved north to Frederick County, increasing the number of big Maryland counties from five to six.

Here’s one more thing you can glean from Montgomery County’s budget.

Just like other county executives, Elrich is facing a greater share of transportation costs as state funds are squeezed. He asked the General Assembly for power to set up a transportation tax, like those used in Fairfax County, Virginia, to help fund rail and road projects.

How long before other executives join his call?

“Looking to the future,” Elrich said, “we will need to have frank conversations about the structural imbalance that exists between the growing demands for county services and the revenue streams we currently have available to us.”

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.

More From The Banner