Several people spoke in support of higher taxes or developer impact fees in Baltimore County during a town hall meeting Wednesday night about the county’s budgetary future with County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and County Council Chairman Tom Quirk.
“I’m here to ask you to raise my taxes,” said Mark Weaver, a longtime Catonsville resident and previous Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates.
After Weaver spoke, many in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County auditorium applauded. Baltimore County has in the past touted its record of not raising property taxes for decades. The property tax has remained stagnant since 1988, and the income tax has not changed since 1992.
Recently, though, tunes have changed and some officials have begun to discuss the possibility of raising taxes to address a projected budgetary shortfall of $81 million. Olszewski said taxes are “the last thing” he’d want to turn to, but that people will have to pay for services they want and depend on.
“Everything is on the table,” Olszewski said. “We’re looking at everything. The budget is in formulation because we want to reflect the priorities of our communities.”
Already, budgets have been trimmed in Baltimore County to met the needs of the county’s fiscal outlook. Interim Schools Superintendent Verletta White announced in January she made $85 million worth of cuts to her proposed operating budget for the schools, hours after Olszewski appeared before the Board of Education to discuss the county’s budget outlook.
The proposed budget kept a raise for educators, but some education advocates in the county have said the school system could save even more money by changing or eliminating the program that supplies laptops for students to use in classrooms. White’s proposed budget includes a plan to reduce the ratio of devices for kindergarten through second grade students from one-to-one to a ratio of one device for every two students.
Also at stake in any future budgets for the county is school construction, especially at the high school level. A study recently completed on behalf of the school system by Sage Policy Group recommended that the county construct new buildings for Lansdowne High School and Towson High School to address capacity and facilities shortfalls in both regions of the county.
The county estimates that constructing a new high school would cost about $100 million. Already, several elementary and middle school construction or renovation projects have been delayed without additional state funding, Olszewski said during the town hall.
Other speakers suggested an additional tax on things like products from medical marijuana dispensaries or alcohol purchases. Many spoke in support of developer impact fees.
Olszewski said he supports developer impact fees in Baltimore County, and submitted a letter saying so to the Maryland legislature. Quirk said he supported impact fees conceptually, but that he’d want to see details before committing to an affirmative vote on the county level.
The projections Quirk said he’s seen on what kind of money impact fees would bring in to the county is around $8 million.
“It [an impact fee] helps, but it doesn’t close the gap,” Quirk said.
A state law would be required to allow the Baltimore County Council to implement developer impact fees, and Maryland lawmakers are considering such bills now, co-sponsored by Del. Steve Lafferty, a county Democrat, and Republican state Sen. Chris West.
Amanda DeLeo, a longtime Catonsville resident, stood and asked Quirk whether he would commit to supporting an excise tax on new buildings. Quirk said he’d want to see details before committing to a vote on an excise tax in the county.
The next step in Baltimore County’s budget process is a council hearing on April 30 in Towson. Olszewski said residents could expect a proposed fiscal year 2020 county budget in mid-April. Hundreds of people have already turned out at the seven budget town halls across the county, and Olszewski said the mid-April rollout of the budget proposal will include additional ways for county residents to make comments and contribute to the budget process. The budget will have to be approved by the county council.
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“I have just been overwhelmed by the showing we’ve seen,” Olszewski said. “It is so encouraging to see people who want to engage in their government.”