Baltimore County's new county executive, Johnny Olszewski Jr., is sworn into office. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
A political power shift in the Baltimore region was made official Monday as Democratic county executives were sworn into office in the three suburban counties surrounding the city.
Steuart Pittman and Calvin Ball took the helm from Republican executives in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, while Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. continued a 25-year streak of Democratic leadership in the largest of the three suburban counties.
All three were sworn in Monday, as was Barry Glassman, the Republican county executive in Harford County, who handily won a second term in last month’s general election.
The executives are facing different challenges as their terms open. In Baltimore County, Olszewski’s immediate concern is the jurisdiction’s fiscal outlook. A new advisory report by Public Resources Advisory Group, a New York firm that evaluates county borrowing patterns, warns the county cannot sustain its current rate of borrowing money for infrastructure projects.
Without significant change — such as scaling back borrowing, raising taxes or forgoing pay raises for government employees — the county’s outstanding debt could balloon from about $2 billion now to nearly $3 billion by 2024, the report says.
Olszewski acknowledged those concerns Monday, and said his first act as executive would be to form a commission to review the county’s fiscal outlook and budget process.
“You deserve to know that we have many challenges ahead of us,” Olszewski, 36, said in his inauguration speech, delivered after he was sworn in during a ceremony at Towson University. “They are real, they are significant and they will not be solved easily.”
Olszewski said he plans to appoint four members to the commission and will ask council members to appoint three members. In an interview, he said he expects recommendations "rather quickly,” so they can be included in his first budget, which he will propose in April.
Olszewski also said he would meet with the county’s budget and information technology directors about putting more budget information online, and pledged to hold “cabinet in the community” meetings around the county.
The financial concerns come as the county is planning expensive school projects and water and sewer infrastructure improvements. But it’s also running up against limits to what it can borrow and what can be dedicated to paying off debt. Experts warn the county could lose its AAA bond rating — similar to an individual’s credit score — if changes aren’t made.
Some County Council members have suggested looking at raising the property or income tax rates — neither has been increased in more than 25 years.
During his campaign Olszewski said raising taxes would be an option of last resort, but did not rule it out. On Monday, he pledged the county will “no longer pass an undue burden to future generations.”
Council members from both parties — who also were sworn in Monday — expressed optimism about Olszewki’s budget commission and promises of transparency.
“I think the days are over when the county will enter into contracts or do things and not let anybody on the council know or let the public know," said Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican.
“I would hope that one of the charges of the commission is to figure out how to fix a large debt problem with lower-than-expected revenue coming in; how to fix that problem without raising taxes," he said.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she was glad to see Olszewski take steps to address the budget issue right away.
“He’s right out of the chute, he wants to take care of business, he wants to be transparent," she said.
Ball, the first black elected county executive in Howard County, also faces a key issue in the early days of his administration — whether to embrace, reject or modify a proposal to buy and tear down more than a dozen buildings on the flood-prone lower portion of Main Street in historic Ellicott City.
The $50 million plan, which was supported by Ball’s predecessor, Republican Allan Kittleman, also calls for widening stream channels and creating open space in the area. Main Street has experienced devastating floods twice in recent years that have claimed lives and damaged numerous buildings. Ball, 43, has said he wants to review the proposal.
He served 12 years on the Howard County Council before being elected county executive, and was sworn in Monday evening in a ceremony at Howard High School in Ellicott City.
In his speech, Ball pledged to represent all of Howard, including those in “Ellicott City, who will not be defined by floods but who, with me as your champion, will become a national model for safety, strength and resilience.”
Pittman, 57, committed to having the county take ownership of the grounds of the shuttered Crownsville Hospital Center and to end a program that screens county jail inmates for potential immigration violations. He also promised to hire more teachers and increase their pay.
“We started this campaign in a barn," said Pittman, referring to his farm. “If you want more influence, my advice is: organize. When communities unite we all move forward.”
Pittman said he would modify a slogan adopted by Republican Steve Schuh, whom he defeated in last month’s election. Schuh’s slogan touted Anne Arundel as “The best place to live, work and start a business.”
The new county slogan under Pittman will simply be: “The best place.”
In Harford County, Glassman was sworn in Monday to serve a second term.
“I want to spend the next four years refining the foundation we have built and yes, instead of just following the same old path, be bold enough to forge a new path and lead the way to new opportunities,” said Glassman, 56, in his inauguration speech at Harford Community College.
Glassman said his goals include improving treatment options for addictions and behavioral health, supporting growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground, finishing a key connection to the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, expanding Internet access and improving job opportunities in the southern part of the county.
The one local suburban county that did not swear in new officials on Monday was Carroll County. There, the five county commissioners, all Republicans, will be sworn into office Tuesday.