Baltimore County residents packed the County Council chambers Tuesday night to speak out on plans to raise the local income tax for the first time in nearly three decades.
Some said County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s proposal to increase taxes would squeeze their family finances, but others urged the council to approve the tax increase and new fees to raise revenues for schools, infrastructure and other community needs.
“We must be willing to invest for the greater good of our collective communities,” said Michelle Huggins of Randallstown.
Olszewski, a Democrat who took office in December, unveiled his $3.4 billion budget April 15. He said the county needs the new revenue to make up for a projected $81 million shortfall and pay for critical needs.
Olszewski wants to raise the local income tax rate from 2.83% to 3.2%. He also proposed a monthly tax of $3.50 per cellphone. In addition, he wants to create fees on new development, increase the hotel tax from 8% to 10%, and impose the hotel tax on Airbnb-style rentals.
Pikesville resident Ivan Lutwin said the higher income tax and new phone fee would cost his family more than $700 a year.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
Opponents of a tax increase said county officials should look for solutions other than taxes.
“We need to learn to live within our means,” said state Del. Bob Long, a Republican whose district includes Dundalk and Essex.
Doug Stanley of Dundalk said the tax increase would “further diminish the middle class in our less affluent areas.”
“I believe that there is a lot more waste to be found in the budget, and I think that we need to really hunker down and find it,” said Stanley, who chairs the Baltimore County committee of the Libertarian Party of Maryland.
But others said county government has not spent enough on schools and public services, hurting all residents.
“The near maniacal fiscal conservatism of the past has become irresponsible and has undermined our quality of life,” said Peta Richkus of Towson, who supports the tax increase.
Education was the focus for many who spoke out, including local school board members, parents, teachers and other school employees.
“Like just about everything in life, a great public education has a price tag,” said Loch Raven Village resident and parent Colleen Carr, who described overcrowding at Pleasant Plains Elementary.
The county executive’s budget includes a 2 percent raise for teachers and support staff. It also puts more counselors, special education teachers and English as a Second Language teachers in schools.
Members of the county teachers union, wearing red and holding signs in support of public education, told the council to fully fund Olszewski’s budget.
“Many of our students are in survival mode on a daily basis due to trauma,” said special education teacher Jillian Pospisil, urging investment in areas such as mental health in schools.
While past budget hearings have been sparsely attended, the session Tuesday drew a large crowd and lasted hours.
A number of speakers also touched on the proposed “impact fees” on development. Supporters said the fees would bring in much-needed revenues and pointed out that other Maryland counties adopted them long ago. Council members also heard from representatives of the building industry who oppose the proposal.
The council, which has four Democrats and three Republicans, will consider the budget plan, which will take effect in July, over the next few weeks. Members are expected to vote on it May 23.
Under the county charter, the council can only cut spending from the executive’s proposal. It’s not allowed to add spending.