“Excruciating,” “trying,” “the most difficult in recent memory” — that’s how Baltimore County Council members described the process of finalizing the $3.43 billion budget they passed Thursday morning.
The budget for the next fiscal year included the first income tax hike in more than a generation and other tax increases in an attempt to close an $81 million county deficit.
The council, three Republicans and four Democrats, also cut $14 million from County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s original proposal.
The cell phone tax, which got the most attention during the month-long budget deliberations, will charge Baltimore County residents 8 percent per account. Olszewski originally proposed a fee of $3.50 per cell line.
The income tax rate, the county’s largest source of revenue will go up from 2.83 percent to 3.2 percent in the year that starts July 1. The council passed the hike on a party line vote.
In proposing the increase, Olszewski challenged a decades-old tradition. Baltimore County last raised the income tax rate in 1992.
The council also passed a hotel tax increase—from 8 percent to 9.5 percent—and a bill that requires developers to pay impact fees to offset the public costs of their projects, both on 5-2 votes. After much back and forth, the council voted to direct the revenue from those fees to the Baltimore County Public School district where they are collected.
The property tax was one of the few the council didn’t touch. The rate will remain the same.
The budget passed with only one dissenting vote, from Republican Councilman Todd Crandall.
Working on the county budget was a first for Olszewski. The Democrat took office in December. In his budget message before the council voted on each proposed bill, Chairman Tom Quirk, also a Democrat, praised Olszewski for putting forth a plan that aims to curb the deficit.
“We are now at a crossroads where we can no longer afford to kick the can down the road,” Quirk said. “No one wants to pay higher taxes and we as elected officials do not covet the thought of asking our constituents to pay more.”
Republican councilmembers Wade Kach and David Marks, as well as Democrats Cathy Bevins, Israel "Izzy" Patoka and Julian Jones, praised Olszewski for his bipartisanship during one of the most contentious budget sessions in recent memory.
The council’s Republicans previously accused the Democrats of not cutting enough spending. Democrats pushed back, accusing the Republicans of refusing to throw their support behind needed tax hikes, leaving the Democratic majority to take the political heat for passing them.
“I'm not excited about the hard choices that were made,” Olszewski told WYPR. “I recognized how hard of a thing it is to do to ask people to be part of these solutions, and so, we don't take the choices lightly.
“But I really think that it's on us to show the value [of the revenue from increased taxes] as we pave the roads, build the parks, build the schools, pay our teachers, make our community safe,” he said. “It’s our responsibility and it’s my desire to make sure we deliver on that promise to the residents of Baltimore County.”
Marks, who prominently objected to some of Olszewski’s proposed hikes, called the executive a “breath of fresh air” during the budget deliberations.
“He’s brought a sense of youth and vigor and passion to his position that was sorely needed,” Marks said.
The $14 million the council cut came mostly from IT services, property management operation fees and the county’s health insurance reserve.