Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski last week showed what real leadership looks like in presenting his first budget message.
Keep in mind, he inherited a mess: an $81 million deficit, and, among other things, he discovered that the county has been plundering the retiree health benefits fund to pay for county operating expenses. Not only would it be difficult to pay for any of his priorities, but he had to find a way to close the deficit.
Undeterred, the county executive set out to make the best of a bad situation and accomplish as much as he could. His proposed budget includes:
- A 2 percent cost of living adjustment for teachers and support staff;
- More teachers, counselors, ESOL teachers and mental health professionals for schools;
- $1 million for bike lanes and pedestrian improvement;
- Positions for an opioid strategy coordinator, a diversity officer and a sustainability officer;
- Planning money for a new Lansdowne High School and the county’s portion of the remaining Schools for Our Future, the ambitious school construction program launched in 2011 to modernize our schools (disappointingly, the state legislature did not pass the bill this session that would have provided Maryland’s counties with increased school construction funding from the state, and without that state funding the county cannot complete these projects);
- Increased funds for road resurfacing and traffic calming.
At the same time, Mr. Olszewski identified $20 million in savings that could be cut from the budget, including $1 million in savings by reducing the number of STAT program portable computers in elementary schools even further than the reductions proposed by the Baltimore County Board of Education. Not only is this an important cost savings measure, but research shows that too much screen time is harmful for children, whose brains are still developing. And, in the words of the county executive, “Devices can’t teach our kids to read the way a teacher can.”
In addition to the cuts, he is proposing that the county enact developer impact fees, something which many county residents have been seeking. Developer impact fees are charged to developers based on number of units built or square footage. These fees are intended to be used to mitigate the impact of developments on infrastructure such as roads and schools. For too long, developers have had free rein in Baltimore County, and the county is left picking up the tab for the infrastructure improvements needed for developments.
Mr. Olszewski is also proposing several other fees, including a cell phone fee. Consumers are already charged a monthly fee for landlines, but with the decreasing number of landlines in use, enacting such a fee for cell phones is common sense. I was intrigued by the cell phone fee when playing with the new Baltimore County budget simulator; it seems to provide great bang for the buck. Cell phone users would only pay $3.50 per month per phone, about the cost of a couple cups of coffee, but it would generate $32.8 million in revenue for the county.
But even these savings and the additional fees are not enough to close the deficit gap and to meet the county’s growing needs. So the county executive also announced that he’s proposing raising Baltimore County’s income taxes for the first time in almost 30 years. Political wisdom is that raising taxes in Baltimore County would be suicide for any politician. But he has the courage to do what needs to be done.
Throughout this process, Mr. Olszewski has led the county with transparency, honesty and accountability. He’s made himself available to residents in town halls throughout the county, where he’s spoken honestly about Baltimore County’s fiscal problems. He established a Commission on Fiscal Sustainability to examine Baltimore County’s budget and budget process and make recommendations based on best practices. And he’s shown that he’s willing to make the difficult decisions to create the better Baltimore County that he promised in his campaign.
As a 30-year resident of Baltimore County, I’m happy to pay more taxes to build the kind of county that I want to live in, and I’m proud that Baltimore County elected such a forward thinking, courageous and creative county executive. The next step is for the County Council to show the same courage and pass this budget, including the associated fees and taxes.