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Baltimore County probably needs to raise taxes, and voters will accept it — if Olszewski does this first

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. may not have explicitly promised not to raise taxes if elected, but he certainly campaigned with a full awareness that even hinting at the necessity of it would be electoral suicide. Ever since the epithet “Taxmussen” made Dennis Rasmussen a one-term executive in 1990, maintaining the income and property tax rates has been the foundational principle of county politics.

Yet Mr. Olszewski also realized that county voters want more than what they’re getting out of the local government. That’s most obviously apparent in the clamor for new high schools to replace Dulaney, Towson and Lansdowne, but it also runs through other Olszewski campaign themes related to early childhood education; teacher pay and class size; transportation; environmental protection, green energy and land preservation; and so on.

The trouble is, Baltimore County government is already bumping up on its fiscal limits. As The Sun’s Pamela Wood reported this week, both the county’s Spending Affordability Committee and the New York-based Public Resources Advisory Group are sounding warnings about the county’s ability to support its current operating and capital commitments, much less take on new ones. Unless something changes, the county’s AAA-bond rating could be at risk. The situation is dire enough that Fred Homan, the recently retired county administrative officer and the person who deserves the most credit for the county’s long run of flat tax rates, warned the County Council in his farewell address that the county has a “revenue problem” and needs to consider raising taxes. Fred Homan saying that is a bit like the former supreme allied commander warning the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. We ought to take it seriously.

Mr. Olszewski was certainly aware of the fiscal situation during the campaign, and he said he believed that fresh eyes on the budget could find efficiencies or novel ways to achieve his goals. That’s certainly possible, though frugality has been the watchword for county budget directors for decades. (And, for what it’s worth, Mr. Olszewski may have pushed out Mr. Homan, but he’s retaining the incumbent budget director.) On his first day in office, the executive issued an order creating a blue ribbon fiscal advisory commission and outlining steps to increase transparency and public engagement in the budgeting process. That last part is crucial; if the county does need to raise taxes, residents will be far more accepting if they have a clear understanding of the fiscal reality and the trade-offs involved in any particular course of action.

The executive also announced Monday plans to put more budget information online and to hold community forums across the county to allow residents meet with top officials “to discuss budget priorities and weigh options.” That’s good, but we would urge him to take the effort at public engagement a step farther.

The Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy has a wide body of experience in engaging people in conversations about complicated topics like the federal budget, immigration policy, net neutrality and so on. The program’s director, political psychologist Steven Kull, says presenting people with a full understanding of a policy choice, including the pros and cons of various options and the level of impact different choices would have, not only helps create a roadmap for policymakers but also tends to produce consensus, often in surprising ways. “People tend to approach it not with an ideological position but in problem-solving mode,” he said. “Republicans raise taxes and Democrats cut spending.”

But doing it right involves more than showing up at community meetings and engaging in conversation. It takes conscious outreach — online, in person or, ideally, both — to get the participation of a representative sample of constituents. And it requires a sophisticated and unbiased presentation of the policy choices at hand. Mr. Olszewski might find it more useful, both in terms of the honesty of the feedback and in terms of consensus building, if the process was conducted by a third party rather than the county government. The Program for Public Consultation has done that dozens of times. Mr. Olszewski, give them a call.

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