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In Baltimore County, a budgetary crossroads

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski outline his budget cuts for the county. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. officially did something that rarely happens in Towson: He proposed raising the county’s income tax rate (or “piggyback” as it follows on top of the state income tax). To appreciate the earthshaking nature of that decision, consider that the last time the county raised its income tax rate, the first nicotine patch was put on the market, a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline cost about $1.05, and Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president. Ever since 1992, county executives have embraced a formula — talk big and visionary but don’t touch the major tax rates — leaving the property and piggyback rates untouched for a generation.

What changed? In his presentation to the County Council, Mr. Olszewski listed a number of reasons for his proposal — an unexpected $81 million deficit with no other readily available remedy and a desire to upgrade public schools, both physically and operationally, especially as the state begins implementing the Kirwan Commission reforms. But one of the county executive’s most compelling points was his observation that county residents deserved better than the status quo. “Great communities,” he noted, “are built by being bold.”

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For too long there’s been an assumption in Towson that county residents prefer that things remain the same. Sure, they may want beautiful schools with central air conditioning and lead-free drinking water, but they don’t want to pay Howard County-level taxes. Affordable housing or better public transit or cleaner streams? Sounds great, but don’t raise my taxes. It’s that kind of thinking that that’s left the county with high schools like the one in Lansdowne that is so dated and in such bad repair that students in wheelchairs can’t attend. There are many other examples.

What does Baltimore County want to be, and what level of services should it provide its residents? That’s the question raised by County Executive Olszewski’s $3.4 billion budget proposal. Does the county want to keep doing what has been done in the past, or is there a desire to take a stand, right here and right now, and decide that good enough isn’t, well, good enough? The budget would fund new and expanded initiatives aimed at a variety of quality-of-life issues from addressing the opioid epidemic to creating bike lanes and investing more in road resurfacing while putting the county on a more sustainable financial path. To his credit, Mr. Olszewski has been straightforward about this. His tax and fee proposals aren’t an 11th-hour add-on or hidden from view, they were major talking points in his budget address — albeit couched as “difficult decisions” and made only after identifying $20 million in cuts including fewer student laptops under the school system’s controversial STAT initiative.

The argument for the income tax increase is compelling. While the county’s property tax rate is slightly above the average for Central Maryland, the current piggyback is below. His plan is to raise it from 2.83 percent to 3.2 percent would bring it in line with Baltimore City and Howard County and only slightly above Harford and Carroll counties. Some of his other revenue proposals, an “impact” surcharge on new development and a slightly higher hotel tax that would be applied to short-term rentals such as Airbnb are also logical. Less clear is whether he will get public support for creating a cell phone fee of $3.50 per line and charging a 1 percent fee on cable accounts to pay for public access programming.

There is also new spending that council members may question, including tourism promotion, a “Chief Sustainability Officer” to deal with climate change-related issues, a new “ethics and accountability” office or $1 million for bike lanes and pedestrian access. And while all appear worthy, their association with a significant revenue increase may cause them to be politically unpalatable even in the first year of a four-year term. Still, Mr. Olszewski seems prepared for a certain amount of give and take. Schools are clearly a high priority, including securing a 2 percent raise for teachers and other personnel, and they represent one area where he should not have to give ground.

To be sure, we will need to hear more about the specifics of the proposed budget before we could possibly give it our full endorsement. But what we are pleased to see is that Mr. Olszewski has once again demonstrated a willingness to break from conventional wisdom to set a new course. As he has done with his earlier push for enhanced ethics and transparency, he is challenging Baltimore County’s old guard politics, and it is a delight to witness. Is he sticking his neck out or simply doing what should have been done years ago? We should find out soon enough. A final budget is expected to be in hand by the end of May.

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