Olszewski wants state to double the money it contributes toward Baltimore County school construction

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.says he has one request for the county’s state lawmakers: More money for school construction.

Olszewski, a Democrat who was elected in November, says he wants the state to give the county $100 million per year for school construction over the next five years.

The county typically receives about $45 million per year, he said.

“This is it. This is our agenda, this is our focus,” Olszewski said in an interview after speaking to the Baltimore County House delegation in Annapolis Friday. “It’s so important that we get it done that I didn’t want to have the delegation or this administration to be distracted this session. It really is about getting our fiscal house in order.”

School construction projects are jointly funded by counties and the state. If Olszewski succeeds in getting more money from the state, he’ll need to find money to match it in the county’s budget.

Olszewski said “all options are on the table” for finding that money. He didn’t rule out raising taxes, but said tax increases are “the last thing I want to turn to.”

The increased funding will allow the county to stay on track for its “Schools for Our Future” construction program started by the late former county executive Kevin Kamenetz. That program includes construction and renovation projects to ease overcrowding in elementary and middle schools and to air-condition all buildings.

After that, the county could tackle multiple high school replacement projects that are needed, Olszewski said.

If the county continues to receive $45 million per year in school construction funding, it would take until 2026 to complete the “Schools for Our Future” projects.

Olszewski walked lawmakers through an outline of the county’s budget, which multiple delegates said was “sobering.”

“I wish I were delivering better news to the delegation today,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski said that as he’s drawing up the next budget, there’s an $81 million shortfall that he must close — and that doesn’t include increased funding requests from the school system for more teachers and counselors.

He said the county is facing multiple expensive needs:

  • Accounts for retiree pensions and health care should be funded at about 50 percent of projected expenses, but the accounts are currently only 19 percent funded.
  • The county will need to spend $700 million over the next five years to stay in compliance with a consent decree that mandates improvements to the sewer system.
  • The county must continue to improve stormwater pollution controls, and the elimination of the “rain tax” fee that had generated $24 million per year for pollution projects makes paying for that work more difficult.

“Our current path forward is not sustainable,” he said.

Multiple advisory reports have warned that the county risks losing its coveted triple-A bond rating if it continues its current pace of borrowing money.

A ratings downgrade would make it more expensive for the county to borrow money to pay for construction of roads, schools, parks and other public projects.

Olszewski has been partnering with County Council members to make similar presentations at public meetings around the county. The next one will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Randallstown Community Center, 3505 Resource Drive.

pwood@baltsun.com

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