Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is proposing a spending plan that includes record funds for schools, investments in parks and raises for employees, saying the county is “on stable financial footing” two years into the pandemic.
The Democrat on Thursday also pledged to address the inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. He wants to fund a summer food program for kids in need, create an affordable housing fund and ensure modern classrooms for “every child, regardless of ZIP code.”
“Moving forward, we refuse to settle for simply getting back to normal,” he said Thursday in an address to the County Council in Towson. “Now is our time to raise the standard for all of Baltimore County.”
His spending proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July includes a $4.8 billion operating budget and a $352 million capital plan.
The county has also received a $160 million through the federal American Rescue Plan to respond to COVID-19 and to help communities recover from its fallout.
The election-year spending plan contains no tax increases.
Schools were a major focus of Olszewski’s budget address, attended by a crowd that included state lawmakers and the heads of county agencies. He also highlighted plans to spend more than $45 million to improve parks. And he spoke of a variety of construction projects, from a $13 million renovation of the Woodlawn Library to a new Jacksonville Senior Center.
Olszewski touted the county’s “responsible fiscal management” and resilient economy, pointing to its AAA bond ratings.
Still, Councilman Tom Quirk, who chairs the county’s Spending Affordability Committee, urged caution. The county now has an influx of federal pandemic aid, but it faces “significant challenges” in the long term with public works infrastructure, pensions and other retiree benefits, he said.
“It’s an ambitious budget,” Quirk, an Oella Democrat, said in an interview after the county executive’s speech. “If we go all-in on schools, then the question is, at what expense?”
About $2.3 billion of Olszewski’s budget is dedicated to the school system, an increase of $91 million over the current year.
Among new positions proposed for schools are 33 school counselors, 11 social workers and dozens of positions for special education and English-learner programs.
The school construction plan includes building a new Scotts Branch Elementary School in Windsor Mill and funding the design phase for new Dulaney and Towson high schools. The budget calls for spending on an addition at Dundalk High and money to address capacity problems at Sparrows Point and Patapsco high schools.
Olszewski also spotlighted plans for the police department, where he wants to add positions including a wellness director, eight new data scientists and four new school resource officers. He’s allocated money to continue hiring bonuses for the agency, plus a take-home police car pilot program that officials could highlight as a perk as they work to recruit and retain officers.
Raises are in store across county government and schools.
In the school system, teachers will on average see a 6.5% increase in pay, Olszewski said. The boost for paraeducators would be about 7%.
Raises of $2 per hour for bus drivers and attendants, previously announced as the county struggled to fill those positions, will be permanent.
In county government, workers on average will earn 4.5% more next year, Olszewski said.
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He also outlined plans for making county government easier to navigate. For instance, he wants to form a Public Information Act team to improve the county’s handling of requests made under open records laws.
He has set aside money for three new employees in the inspector general’s office, which would double the number of staff there. The agency works to find fraud, abuse and wasteful spending in county government. Olszewski has faced criticism for attempting to limit the inspector general’s powers. He said Thursday he’s “fully committed” to the office’s success.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for April 26. The County Council will meet with agency heads next month before voting on the spending plan May 26.
Under county charter, the council members cannot add to the executive’s budget; they can only cut.
Olszewski faced an $81 million budget deficit when he took office in 2018. He raised income taxes the next year, marking the county’s first tax hike in three decades.
The seven-member council’s three Republicans have “consistently pushed for a property tax cut, but the votes aren’t there,” said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican.
“We will be working with the auditors to see if there are any inefficiencies that can be identified. But I suspect that a budget that’s very focused on capital projects will get a lot of support from the council,” Marks said.