Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. says his administration projects that the county’s local revenues will drop by “tens of millions of dollars” next year as businesses suspend operations and furlough or lay off workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Adding to the problem, Olszewski said, expenses directly tied to COVID-19 also will amount to “tens of millions” of dollars.
Olszewski addressed budget projections during a virtual town hall Tuesday night, saying the county is “in uncharted territory.” The Democrat said the county will have to focus on the “basics” to ensure residents continue to receive the essential public services required to “weather this storm.”
“We will have to make some difficult decisions, but I remain optimistic that the steps we have taken to date and those we will continue to take will allow us to remain focused on our priorities while we manage our way through this crisis together,” Olszewski said.
Providing resources to schools, public safety and the workforce are the county’s three budget priorities for 2021, Olszewski said. Some members of the County Council who were present voiced support for the tighter budget.
Councilman David Marks, citing a briefing from the county’s Economic Advisory Committee, said COVID-19 will create “a very short and vicious recession,” forcing county government to make “some very difficult decisions in the short term.”
“This will be a budget cycle different than any other in my nine years on the council,” Marks said. “We’ll need to focus on the fundamentals of local government, including public safety, education, transportation and infrastructure, and caring for our most vulnerable citizens.”
The county’s ability to take on “particularly large projects,” such as repairs to county drainage, will be “constrained at least in the short term,” Olszewski said. Councilman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat, sought to assure residents nonetheless that the county will look into flooding problems and ways to address them in the future.
Olszewski said he’s planning to follow up with the county’s state lawmakers to figure out the long-term prospects of the massive public schools overhaul recommended by the Kirwan Commission. He also said he remains “fully committed” to working on the county’s school needs, including a 10-year plan to address overcrowding.
Additionally, Olszewski said, he’s worked with the county to put forward the funding to provide air conditioning in high schools by next year. Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said those projects will positively affect the county during the economic decline.
Maryland’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases exceeds 4,000 and on Tuesday the state’s cumulative death toll from the pandemic topped 100. Public services have been restricted and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has closed nonessential businesses. Hogan also issued a stay-at-home order in an effort to reduce gatherings.
Those actions were taken to slow the spread of infections that could overwhelm Maryland’s health care system, county health department director Dr. Gregory Branch said.
As a result of the economic slowdown, 13,000 county residents last week filed unemployment claims, said Will Anderson, director of the county’s Department of Economic and Workforce. He said he expects that number to increase.
Tourism also is expected to take "a major punch” due to the pandemic, Anderson said. Hotels and restaurants could see drops in revenue this year, but Anderson said the county is developing “an aggressive plan” to support the tourism industry.
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The pandemic is also driving an increase in trash from residents who are staying at home, Olszewski said. The county’s waste drop-off facilities are closed to the public, but they will remain open for commercial haulers. Likewise, the county has suspended the curbside pickup of yard waste until further notice so collectors can focus on trash collection.
The county’s adjusted budget proposal could affect the “small” backlog of road-resurfacing projects, Olszewski said. Those projects create jobs, but Olszewski stressed the county has to first focus on keeping “the core of our government services intact.”
Meanwhile, the county is planning to rely largely upon a $1.65 million federal grant to develop the Towson Circulator, a free bus that would connect downtown areas, Olszewski said. Marks said the county is also reaching out to the community for assistance.
The County Council on Monday night passed several emergency bills in an effort to help the county fund its pandemic response.
Olszewski’s administration created a “COVID-19 Donations Gifts and Grants Fund program” to complement its “COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.” The donations program will let donors provide up to $500,000 to address pandemic response expenses.
The council also passed the Olszewski administration’s request to approve supplemental appropriations of $3.5 million in federal funds and $3.5 million in state funds for the new coronavirus donation program. The combined funds will be used to reimburse the county’s COVID-19 expenses.
Olszewski is scheduled to present his administration’s 2021 budget proposal to the council next Tuesday.