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Baltimore County councilman urges Olszewski to reconsider budget, raises due to coronavirus impact

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk is urging County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to reconsider his proposed budget, arguing the coronavirus-related impact will be larger than Olszewski is anticipating.

In a letter to Olszewski, Quirk, an Oella Democrat who was also writing as chairman of the Spending Affordability Committee that advises the county executive, said county economic assumptions have “collapsed,” and analysts now expect revenues to decline by $270 million by the end of the budget year beginning July 1. Quirk recommended the county consider eliminating plans to give workers a cost-of-living and other pay increases, fund schools above state requirements and pay for new construction projects.

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“We cannot delay our fiscal policy response to the unprecedented pandemic reality we are facing," Quirk wrote. "We must prepare for the worst while we hope for the best.”

Olszewski, a Democrat, released his budget proposal last month. He told reporters Tuesday morning he knows the council’s auditors are working on “a revised number on what they think we’re facing given where we are.” The county is holding an online budget hearing Tuesday evening.

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“Councilman Quirk offers tremendous expertise and insight on fiscal matters, and we will carefully review the Spending Affordability Committee’s new analysis," Olszewski said in a statement. "COVID-19 has forced painful decisions at every level of government, and we will continue working closely with the Council to ensure that we can meet our basic needs and shared goals for our communities.”

Olszewski’s budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 expected revenues to be $40 million less than previously estimated because of an anticipated “steep economic decline” from the pandemic’s aftermath. Olszewski stressed in April that it was “reasonable” to expect another revenue write-down before the Council completes its budget work.

Olszewski’s budget proposal complied with the $2.21 billion spending guidelines from the county’s Spending Affordability Committee at the time, but the guideline is “no longer the appropriate lodestar” for the county’s budgeting process," according to Quirk’s letter.

Quirk said the council’s legislative analysts expect General Fund revenue impacts of $70 million in the current fiscal year, wiping out the effects of the November 2019 income tax, and as much as $200 million for the next fiscal year. The combined shortfalls exceed the $207.2 million balance of the county’s Revenue Stabilization Reserve Account, Quirk said.

The forecast shortfalls will worsen, Quirk said, with Maryland state aid cutbacks and the associated effects on school system staffing, in addition to “any hopes” of education funding enhancements through the Kirwan Commission plan.

Olszewski’s budget proposal included more than $30 million in negotiated cost of living adjustments, which are set to take effect as early as June 30. Olszewski also wanted to provide an additional $24 million in increments and salary scale changes during fiscal 2021.

Quirk called plans to honor the pay raises “noble in intention,” but said the raises could increase the need for "deep furloughs and other personnel cuts.”

“I’m confident that our labor organizations recognize the severe situation we all face and will do their part to help secure jobs over possible deep furloughs or job eliminations. We are all in this together in shared sacrifice and resolute determination to weather this storm,” Quirk wrote.

John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said it would be “pretty detrimental” for the county to not honor the previously negotiated pay increases. Ripley represents 1,600 workers, and the largest portion of their membership is made up of correctional officers and 911 center employees who “desperately struggle" to attract and maintain staffing levels in both departments, he said.

“To start prematurely talking about not honoring these cost of living adjustments and scheduled steps and longevities could be a formula for disaster,” Ripley said.

The county announced a freeze on nonessential hiring this month to avoid furloughs and layoffs. But Quirk said more needs to be done, and all “forward movement of new capital projects should cease.”

The Spending Affordability Committee said in February it anticipated General Fund revenue growth of 2.3% for fiscal 2021, after strong expected growth of 5.9% for the current fiscal year. The county’s economic consultant also projected personal income growth of 4.16% and 3.9% for this fiscal year and the next one, respectively.

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But the pandemic dismantled those forecasts, Quirk wrote. As of April 13, 2020, the county’s four-year average personal income growth estimate dropped to 2.4%.

Councilman Wade Kach told his colleagues at their public hearing for the budget that they should make spending cuts. The county may discover that some of the projects eliminated may not be necessary in the long term, the Cockeysville Republican said.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, also said there are some cuts he would “like to see explored." Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, agreed that cuts will have to occur.

“We’re definitely going to have to make some very tough decisions this year, but hopefully the auditor’s staff will give us a good blueprint for where we go,” Marks said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget on May 21. The full proposal is available on the county government’s website.

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