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In Baltimore County, talk of rescinding pay raises is just the tip of the iceberg | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, holds a news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county in mid-March. Six weeks later, Mr. Olszewski faces a budget proposal due heavy revisions because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a predicted deficit.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., center, holds a news conference on the first case of the coronavirus in the county in mid-March. Six weeks later, Mr. Olszewski faces a budget proposal due heavy revisions because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a predicted deficit. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk deserves a nod for his willingness to raise a painful subject unlikely to win him many fans. With projected tax revenues falling like dead branches in a strong wind, the Oella Democrat fired off a letter to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. warning him that it’s essentially time to take cover. One of the first, painful sheltering steps in this pandemic-spawned storm? Cut $30 million in promised cost-of-living adjustments for county employees in the coming fiscal year. Even for the normally temperate days of late April, that got an icy reception from those who represent county employees. A “formula for disaster” is how the president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees described it.

We assume John Ripley, whose union represents about 1,600 workers and who helped negotiate those cost of living adjustments, is just warming up his outrage. He also rightly points out that those essential county workers who are simply, and rather modestly, expecting their wages to keep pace with inflation include health care workers and jail staff who are risking their lives and those of their immediate families each work day as they labor in close quarters with individuals who might carry the COVID-19 virus and not even know it (don’t even get us started on the pathetic state of precautionary testing nationwide). And we would surely join him in his anger if there weren’t a lot of other important budget items also suggested for the cutting block to stem a projected $200 million-plus shortfall in fiscal 2021 including Baltimore County’s contributions toward Kirwan upgrades to K-12 public education. Oh, and the fact that County Executive Olszewski is sitting on an as-yet untapped rainy day fund factors into this, too.

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Here’s the reality check. We are about to enter some uncommon territory as state and local governments cope with a staggering loss of tax revenue. All those folks newly placed on the unemployment line — with more than 26.5 million jobs lost in the pandemic at last count — the U.S. economy is in the tank. By certain measures, Maryland is actually doing better than some states (per capita job losses, for example), but it’s still misery of a historic nature. The next step is going to translate in state and local governments that don’t have the power to run up deficits and simply charge their payroll and other costs to future generations like their federal counterpart.

How bad is it going to get in other seats of local government? It’s impossible to say for certain given all the variables. But every subdivision in Maryland and beyond is facing exactly this dilemma. What is the most prudent course? Councilman Quirk describes it as a hope for the best and plan for the worst scenario. That’s probably about right — with some limits. Clearly, no one should be caught flat-footed at this moment, not with the nature of the crisis so much better understood today than it was two months ago. But we’d also warn against draconian actions taken before their time. In other words, cut the lowest priorities first. Draw down emergency funds, but maintain a prudent level. And call your congressman.

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You read that correctly. Perhaps the most important, but least predictable, budget line item is emergency assistance from Washington. It’s shameful really. State and local governments ought to be getting a check just like the airlines, the unemployed and small businesses, which also was provided near the start of the Great Recession 11 years ago. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to be the chief roadblock to this. He’s been solidly against it, calling it a bailout of states that should go bankrupt instead, but recently appeared to soften his rhetoric, suggesting that, perhaps, such aid might be forthcoming if Democrats agree to limiting liability for health care workers as well as business owners as they reopen during the pandemic.

The Kentucky senator may soon find that position indefensible as even the reddest of the Red States begin to comprehend the extent of their budget shortfalls and that restarting the economy will not be as fast, comprehensive or orderly as they may want. Even in Georgia, they are learning that lifting stay-at-home orders is no guarantee people will perceive dining or shopping or a myriad other activities as safe. Today, in Baltimore County, the headline is about cutting pay raises, a move that may seem premature given the other opportunities to trim slightly a nearly $4 billion county budget. By next month or the month after, however, it may be about furloughs or even pay cuts if the economy continues downward and the shortfall expands. This is the uncertain era in which we are living. There is no AAA road map revealing the best route ahead. Given those uncertainties, it’s simply prudent for state and local governments to prepare for the worst.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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