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Baltimore County Executive Olszewski releases $4.2 billion spending plan with record school funding

After Baltimore County fared better than others with the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. unveiled his $4.2 billion operating budget Thursday, kicking in unprecedented funds for public schools and county retirees.

He’s also seeking to pay for several multi-million dollar projects in his capital budget, including new senior centers and parks, fire and police stations, new schools and a pilot program for a free Towson bus system, expected to launch this fall.

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The county expects to end the fiscal year in June with $63 million more than forecast, according to county budget director Ed Blades. County auditors had expected revenues to fall by almost $52 million, or by 2.3%, compared to fiscal 2020.

Olszewski’s proposal is a more than 5% spending increase over the current year, when he and the County Council cut spending by $100 million fearing a pandemic-related recession that has decimated revenues for localities such as Baltimore City.

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This year marks “a turning point” in the pandemic, Olszewski said during his budget presentation.

Revenues were shielded this year by federal stimulus dollars and higher-than-expected income tax revenue, buoyed by taxable unemployment benefits, according to the county auditor’s office.

“I was told 4% of our income tax accounts make up 80% of the withholdings,” said Blades, referring to the county’s top earners. “Those people continue to work.”

Olszewski’s proposed $2 billion schools budget accounts for nearly half of his spending plan. On Wednesday, Olszewski touted his proposal as the largest increase in school system funding, $40 million more proposed than the state-mandated minimum, and $32 million higher than its school funding last year.

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That funding, he said, will help maintain 122 teaching positions that were proposed to be cut in the school system’s budget due to declining enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic and provides a 2% raise for school staff after step increases were nixed from the spending plan last year.

Olszewski’s budget also would fund adding 15 minutes of instruction to the school day “to support student recovery” as officials and parents have bemoaned online learning and its effect on students’ education.

The money funds “nearly every request” from the school system’s budget, Olszewski said. School officials sent a $1.74 billion request to Olszewski, which included $72 million in federal funding the school is due to receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March.

That’s separate from the more than $160 million in federal money the county will get, although it’s unclear how that money will be divided up.

The “proposed budget fulfills many of our requests and will enable us to make significant strides forward for our students, teachers and staff,” Board of Education chair Makeda Scott said during a press conference Wednesday.

“Recovering from the past year will require a massive investment and unwavering commitment on behalf of the entire community,” she said.

Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, also wants to kick in $70 million for retiree benefits, including health and life insurance, after the fund was raided for years, officials said, by the late Kevin Kamenetz’ administration.

Within his capital budget, among the biggest projects Olszewski wants to fund is $67 million to replace the dilapidated Lansdowne High School, which has been pushed by school advocates for years.

The plan also would provide $50.8 million in funding to finish other long-term school construction plans after the General Assembly approved school construction funding during its recent session.

“I think this is a budget where we start to really imagine what’s possible,” Olszewski said in an interview. “This a budget that’s about not returning to the way things were, but imagining a brighter future around the county.”

The county would pay $516,000 to eliminate all overdue library fines for around 13,000 library patrons, and kick in $12 million for senior center projects, including $4.6 million to expand Woodlawn Senior Center and $3 million to build a new senior center for the northern county.

His budget includes $850,000 to create the county’s first Department of Housing and Community Development to prevent homelessness and address decades of housing discrimination.

Several projects would be built in Sparrows Point to the southeast, where Olszewski said the economic growth of the Tradepoint Atlantic port has created a need for a new police substation and fire station totaling $16 million. He’s also planning $14 million to build the county’s first public park in 6 years.

And to the southwest, Olszewski would spend $7 million to build a new Wilkens police precinct station.

Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents parts of the southwest county, said the budget funds several capital projects his constituents have been calling for, including replacing Lansdowne High, a new playground at the Benjamin Banneker Museum and sidewalk improvements.

“It’s like Christmas came early,” he said.

The budget also includes an increase in police funding to a total of $2 million for a total of $238 million, and would outfit 425 officers with body-worn cameras as part of county police reforms that included banning chokeholds amid ongoing national calls to address police violence.

The new police funding also includes money to expand the department’s Internal Affairs office by adding three new positions.

“Our police officers put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe,” said Olszewski, whose brother is a county officer. “I am confident the reforms we’ve enacted will make a great police department even better.”

Republican Councilman David Marks said the proposal is “probably one of the best budgets I’ve seen” in his nearly 11 years on the council.

“I’m always concerned that during prosperous times that we’re padding the government,” he said. “During prosperous times we should be using surplus funding for infrastructure, schools and brick and mortar projects — and that’s what this budget does.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 27.

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