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Baltimore County Council spending plan would cut some school funding and cost-of-living raises amid pandemic

The Baltimore County Council is planning to cut more than $58 million from its fiscal year 2021 budget due to economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The council unanimously voted to adopt the reductions during a virtual meeting Thursday. The meeting was held before a Friday vote on County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s $3.9 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1.

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The $58 million in cuts includes plans to eliminate $20.2 million in school funding and cost-of-living and other pay increases for county employees. The county will also institute a hiring freeze and make reductions in nine departments, including police, public works, property management and the agencies overseeing insurance and retirement.

The council is also planning to save $69 million by reducing general fund expenses, such as capital projects, and tapping a health insurance reserve fund. The combined cuts will reduce the county’s spending by more than $127 million by the end of fiscal year 2021.

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“We know how important every agency and every county employee is to the functions of Baltimore County government," said Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican. “But we had directors coming before us saying, ‘We know that times are tight and we know the challenge that you face, so we’re willing to do our part and make certain sacrifices without sacrificing their service to the residents of Baltimore County."

Council Chair Cathy Bevins, a Democrat from Middle River, and her colleagues stressed the council’s analysts worked in collaboration with Olszewski’s office to create “a balanced budget.” Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said they all “put the county first in the best interests of the citizens.” Jones also commended the county for developing a plan that excludes furloughs and layoffs.

Thomas Bostwick, the council’s legislative attorney and secretary, said this will be the largest budget cut that officials know of in the county’s history. Last year the county cut $14 million from Olszewski’s inaugural budget proposal.

Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said residents will survive regardless of the cuts as long as county employees continue to do “good work.” Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he and Olszewski, a Democrat, are “optimistic” things will improve over time.

“This was one of the most difficult budgets I’ve worked on, but it was one of our best budget processes," said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. “There was collaboration between the executive and legislative branches, as well as between our labor unions and Baltimore County government to identify savings."

Initially, the council’s budget discussion and vote were scheduled for last week, but the vote was delayed because members waited to see if Congress would pass another stimulus package with additional aid for local governments. Although that hasn’t occurred, Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat from Oella, said he hopes Congress will pass another stimulus bill this summer.

The council’s actions come two weeks after Olszewski’s administration reported an anticipated loss of more than $172 million in revenue between now and June 2021 due to declining income and real estate taxes amid the pandemic shutdowns. Quirk told Olszewski in late April that analysts expect revenues to drop by $270 million by the end of the fiscal year 2021.

Olszewski is expected to weigh in after the council gives final approval Friday morning. Details for viewing the virtual meeting are available on the county’s website.

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