Baltimore County Council cuts $14 million from Olszewski budget at contentious meeting

In a contentious meeting Friday, the Baltimore County Council reduced County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s $3.4 billion spending plan by more than $14 million.

Many votes fell along party lines — and after the meeting, Republicans and Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Democrat, accused each other of partisanship.

The council is scheduled to take a final vote on the budget May 23, including decisions on Democrat Olszewski’s proposals for an income tax increase, a new cellphone tax and other measures to raise revenues. The new budget year starts in July.

Under the county charter, the council can make cuts or shift funds in the executive’s budget — but can’t increase spending.

On Friday, the seven-member council, which has four Democrats and three Republicans, agreed unanimously on about $10 million in cuts from Olszewski’s budget. The bulk of the reduction was from a reserve fund for employee health insurance, which they cut by $9 million. They also agreed to delay by six months Olszewski’s plan to launch a 311 program similar to Baltimore’s. That would save more than $254,000.

A move to cut $4.2 million from Olszewski’s road resurfacing plan passed 5-2, with Republicans Todd Crandell of Dundalk and Wade Kach of Cockeysville opposing it. Republican David Marks of Perry Hall voted with Democrats in supporting that reduction.

At points, the meeting was heated. Republicans accused Quirk of not following procedural rules. Crandell said Quirk blindsided members with a list of cuts the Democrats supported. Crandell said he received the list when he got to the meeting.

“You’re the chair. You haven’t communicated anything to us,” Crandell told Quirk.

In addition, Kach took issue with Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, being allowed to vote Friday by phone. Bevins, who is on a trip to Las Vegas, joined the meeting via conference call. She didn’t return a call from The Baltimore Sun seeking comment but said during the meeting that her office made a scheduling mistake.

Republicans proposed a series of cuts that Democrats rejected, including an additional $8 million from the health insurance reserve fund and $16 million from the school system’s laptop program. They also proposed smaller reductions, such as eliminating Olszewski’s proposal for a chief diversity officer, which would save more than $70,000.

Democrat Izzy Patoka of Pikesville said the position was “sorely needed” because the county workforce needs to improve its diversity.

After the meeting, Quirk said the council Republicans “have been very partisan because they have no solutions.”

“There’s plenty of Republicans, independents and Democrats in Baltimore County that truly value local government and are willing to pay for it,” said Quirk, who supports tax increases. “And quite frankly, if they’re not willing to pay for it, then Councilman Marks and Councilman Kach need to stop talking about the schools that they want.”

Both Marks and Kach have pushed for new schools to be built in their districts.

Marks in turn called Quirk “the most partisan chairman I have encountered in nine years on the council.”

“Under Tom Quirk’s administration, the Baltimore County Council has become Capitol Hill,” Marks said after the council session.

During the meeting, council members alluded to tension, saying the budget was especially stressful this year because of financial issues facing the county.

“This has been a very trying time for us,” said Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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