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Baltimore County Council approves $4.2 billion budget with no spending cuts

The Baltimore County Council passed a $4.2 billion spending plan Thursday without cutting a cent from County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s initial proposal.

Council members have lauded the plan proposed by Olszewski, a Democrat, for spending $1 billion on construction of schools, senior centers, parks and playgrounds, and fire and police stations across the county after a year of unexpected revenue growth — $63 million more than projected last year — largely because of federal coronavirus relief aid.

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“This is not because we agreed with every aspect of the administration’s budget decisions and not because we decided to rubber stamp the budget,” council chair Julian Jones said of the 7-0 vote.

It’s a “recognition,” he said, of the steps Olszewski’s administration has “taken to improve and stabilize county finances” that “have paid off and have now given us the resources to provide funding for projects that we could not afford previously.”

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Constituents didn’t object to the budget, either; just one county resident testified during a virtual budget hearing last month.

With this budget, Olszewski said in a statement, the county is poised to build on “progress we’ve already made” toward post-pandemic recovery and “to address longstanding disparities in our communities,” Olszewski said in a statement.

Council members have said the plan is equitable, with capital dollars divvied among several projects in their districts. There’s $16 million for new police and fire substations at Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point, $7 million for a new Wilkens precinct police station and $14.5 million to build the county’s first park in six years, also in Sparrows Point.

The budget also funds a $1.7 million pilot project to launch a free circulator bus in the heart of Towson, establishes the county’s first housing department and includes $609,000 to outfit hundreds of county police officers with body-worn cameras. The county also will restart its bulk trash pickup program.

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And there’s millions allocated for stream restoration, including $3 million to mitigate stormwater runoff into the Pittsfield Road tributary of Gwynns Falls to improve water quality in the polluted watershed.

The county received $140 million through the CARES Act last year and has spent $135 million, according to county spokesman Sean Naron. Officials expect to get around $161 million from the American Rescue Plan, approved by Congress in March

The spending plan holds the line on property and income taxes. Two years ago, the council approved levying the county’s first income tax increase in decades.

Jones said the council’s approval “shows a confidence in the administration that incoming COVID relief monies will be spent wisely.”

Olszewski plans to spend $45 million of federal money on infrastructure projects like broadband expansion and transportation, water and sewer improvements, according to a draft spending outline.

There’s also $5 million for behavioral health initiatives and $25 million for grants and other funding to support businesses and families.

Olszewski has touted the $2 billion Baltimore County Public Schools budget as the largest single increase in schools funding, $32 million higher than its funding last year, when council members pared its spending plan by tens of millions, bracing for the fiscal impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year marked the steepest known budget cuts in county history, officials said, when the Council voted to cut $58 million and forgo raises for county employees and school staff.

This year, the school system is getting more than it requested, boosted by federal relief funds, including money for a 2% raise for school staff and county employees.

Olszewski’s budget retains 122 teaching positions that the school system had proposed to be cut due to declining enrollment. It also pays for 15 extra minutes of school day instruction “to support student recovery” after a year of remote learning.

Some council members earlier this year had threatened schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams with budget cuts if he did not acquiesce to demands to answer questions regarding summer school and fall reopening plans as well as a ransomware attack that crippled school networks.

Jones reiterated the council was “frustrated by lack of communication” from the school system regarding the crippling November cyber attack, “mainly because we allocate almost half the county budget to the school system.”

“We accept this responsibility even though we have very little say in terms of accountability,” he added.

Ultimately, the Council left the schools budget untouched.

And despite harsh criticism from council members last week over the way the county’s Inspector General Kelly Madigan investigates waste and abuse, her request to add another position to her two-person staff also was included.

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