Baltimore County has more than 826,000 residents.
None of them spoke up last year on how the county should spend its $3.5 billion budget.
The county council is trying to change that.
Council members are poised to pass a bill Monday that will require the county executive to hold two public meetings before proposing the budget each spring. The hope, backers say, is that county residents will feel more empowered to speak up while the county executive is still deciding what to include in the budget.
Council members now hold one public hearing after the budget is introduced and before they vote on it. But the council has limited authority over the budget: It can cut money, but they can’t add money or move it around.
“To give people the opportunity to let the county executive know what their priorities are is very important,” said County Councilman Wade Kach, the Cockeysville Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
Kach’s bill requires the county executive to hold at least two public meetings between 30 and 90 days before the budget is introduced in mid-April.
This is Kach’s second attempt at such a bill. Last summer, it failed on a 4-3 party-line vote. This time, he has bipartisan support and enough votes for his bill to pass.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is in his last year in office, supports the bill, his spokeswoman said.
“The County Executive holds numerous community meetings throughout the year in which the budget is always one of the main topics discussed,” spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a statement. “However, we certainly support formalizing that process to increase public opportunities for input.”
Other counties have held hearings before introducing their budgets for years.
Former Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman started holding early budget hearings in 2014. The practice was continued by the county’s current executive, Steve Schuh. Anne Arundel voters voted in 2016 to make it a legal requirement.
“These meetings afford an opportunity for citizens to make their voice heard before we propose a budget,” said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Schuh.
The meetings are held before department directors finalize their budget requests that Schuh incorporates into the overall budget, McEvoy said. This year’s meetings were set up in an open-house style, with department directors staffing different areas. The line to meet with Schuh is always the longest.
The first meeting this year fell on a rainy night and was sparsely attended, McEvoy said. The second meeting drew about 60 people.
Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman held hearings in December and this month before introducing his budget.
In Baltimore County, Cathy L’Altrelli said she was in the audience last year when no one got up to speak at the budget hearing.
The Lutherville woman thought about testifying on the budget, but said she “chickened out” after seeing only about 10 other people in the room, and no one making a move to speak up.
Council Chairman Julian Jones, who was leading that meeting, all but begged anyone to speak.
“We’ve got $3 billion,” he said. “Any speaker want to come forward, even to make a recommendation for us to write them a check tonight?”
L’Altrelli told council members this week that she thinks adding hearings before the budget is introduced would be a good idea.
“It will be positive no matter who the next county executive is or who is sitting in your seats the next go round,” she said.