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Olszewski pares back Baltimore County budget plans anticipating coronavirus economic impact

Towson, MD--February 1, 2019--Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is interviewed at his office. Barbara Haddock Taylor
Towson, MD--February 1, 2019--Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is interviewed at his office. Barbara Haddock Taylor (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has proposed a $3.9 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2021 that includes over $2 billion for education, funding for his public safety plan and two previously negotiated pay raises for all county employees.

Olszewski estimates county revenues for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will be $40 million less than previously estimated because of an expected “steep economic decline” from the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Olszewski said, the proposed budget only prioritizes the immediate needs required for the county “to weather this storm.”

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“This is not the budget I hoped to present to you this year, but it is the budget that meets the moment. Today, we are focused on responding to an immediate and evolving crisis," Olszewski said.

The Democratic county executive’s latest budget proposal doesn’t include any tax increases, unlike the historic tax increase proposed — and passed — during fiscal 2020.

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Education and public safety

Olszewski said the record $2 billion funding for education includes a proposed Baltimore County Public Schools budget that’s nearly $36 million above fiscal 2020′s funding levels and $20 million more than the required maintenance of effort.

Specifically, Olszewski’s proposal provides a 1% cost-of-living increase for all Baltimore County Public Schools employees, effective July 1. It also provides more than $1 million to hire additional school counselors and support staff to help address the mental health, social and emotional needs of students.

Additionally, the proposed budget allows the Community College of Baltimore County to freeze in-county tuition for the second year in a row, and it provides funding for a continuation of the College Promise scholarship program.

The proposal is less than the $114 million increase the school system requested, and Olszewski said he would have liked to provide county schools with more of the requested resources. To avoid class size growth this year, he said he has advised the school system to place the 169 staff development teachers directly into classrooms to grow the ranks of the county’s "front-line teachers.”

Olszewski said the budget will protect Baltimore County’s portion of capital funding for all remaining Schools for our Future construction projects, which cannot move forward until the state provides its share of funding from the Built to Learn Act.

Olszewski said he also is asking County Council to approve a measure to place cameras on school buses to record drivers who pass stopped school buses illegally. The money collected from school bus camera violations will pay for public safety programs, he said.

Olszewski said the 49 county homicides last year — the most in a year since 1985, according to FBI data — is “unacceptable.” Olszewski’s budget would use existing and new funding to hire two new police squads to focus full-time on “targeted law enforcement” priorities.

The budget also includes a “real time crime center” that will combine data, human intelligence and technology to deploy resources more effectively, and money to build two Police Athletic League Centers through the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Additionally, the proposed budget would give $1 million to support volunteer fire companies. The budget also would support the first phase of funding to purchase a second set of turnout gear for firefighters, he said.

Workforce, community support

Olszewski said the proposed budget would fully fund a deferred 2% cost-of-living adjustment for the county government’s workforce, effective June 30. The county’s budget would provide an additional 2% cost-of-living adjustment for county employees on January 1 — agreements made with labor unions before the coronavirus outbreak, Olszewski said.

Olszewski’s budget also provides funding to fully implement the county’s new 311 program. He also wants to expand the county’s new Office of Ethics and Accountability. His proposal would create an “audit compliance unit” to ensure audit findings are effectively deployed to improve county operations and to help track tens of millions of dollars in COVID-related expenditures.

The budget proposal also provides funds for planning and implementation of the Towson Circulator pilot program, building on a $1.6 million federal grant. Olszewski also wants to resume glass recycling after the prior administration suspended it.

Olszewski stressed the “new reality” of the pandemic doesn’t leave "much room for extras,” however, he stressed the proposal still provides new funding for park acquisition and a “more equitable” distribution of park and recreational infrastructure.

COVID-19′s impact

Maryland’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases exceeds 9,400, and the state’s cumulative death toll from the pandemic is over 300. The virus has forced many companies to furlough or layoff workers, and Olszewski expects the county will continue to feel the impact of the pandemic after it ends.

Citing dire economic projections from the International Monetary Fund, Olszewski said the county Office of Budget and Finance updated their projection at the beginning of April, resulting in a budget that spends about $46 million less than the county had planned as recently as a month ago.

Olszewski said the budget he’s submitting is more than $8 million below the guidelines set forth by the Spending Affordability Committee and reserves nearly $6 million to top up the county’s rainy day fund — “a fund that we may need to help our recovery should some of the worst-case scenarios materialize,” he said.

“Given both the rapidly changing nature and severity of the economic decline ahead, it is reasonable to expect another revenue write-down before the County Council completes its work on this budget. It is also reasonable to expect that mid-year adjustments to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget will be necessary as we better understand the depth of the crisis,” Olszewski said.

The county implemented a hiring freeze last week to avoid furloughs and layoffs.

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Olszewski acknowledged the proposed budget means the county will not be able to hire additional people, such as teachers. It also means programs and initiatives will need to be deferred or reconsidered. The county will have to do without funding for more turf fields, updates to county senior centers, street paving and major flood mitigation projects, “just to name a few," he said.

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The County Council is scheduled to vote on the budget on May 21. Details for the full budget are available on the county government’s website.

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