More than 100 Baltimore County residents poured into the Loch Raven High School auditorium Thursday night in Towson to participate in a town hall meeting hosted by Baltimore County’s new County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to hear citizens’ budget priorities.
The three-hour meeting, hosted alongside County Councilman David Marks, was the first of seven planned around the county in each council district.
Reflecting on his days as a teacher, Olszewski opened the town hall with a quiz for its participants: How many people, he asked, testified on the county budget during the past two years? The answer: two.
That lack of participation was what Olszewski said he hoped to change by holding public forums earlier in the process.
“We are trying to change the paradigm of avoiding engagement and shift to actual engagement,” Olszewski said.
On Thursday night, dozens of residents of the 5th Council District, which includes Towson, Parkville and Perry Hall, laid out their wish lists. Top issues included capital investments in schools, green infrastructure and code enforcement.
But Olszewski painted a stark picture of the county’s resources. In a presentation outlining the county’s revenue streams and spending priorities, he pointed out areas in which the county will have to spend more in the coming years, including benefits for retired employees and compliance with a clean-water consent decree mandating improvements to the sewer system. Even without counting needs like new schools and infrastructure improvements, the county’s revenues do not cover its obligations, he said.
The executive committed to auditing and streamlining county spending. But residents also had ideas for addressing the shortfall. Some suggested implementing developer impact fees; others suggested raising taxes.
After the meeting, Olszewski said he is leaving all options on the table, but would only raise taxes to fill the gap after every other solution had been tried.
“We get what we pay for,” said Towson resident Jennifer Bolster, asking Olszewski not to take taxes off the table. “It takes courage on the part of citizens to step up and pay for it if we want it,” she said.