The Baltimore County Council is expected to make what one councilman said will be historic budget cuts on Thursday.
The county is dealing with a budget shortfall projected to be at least $172 million, caused by the wrecking of the economy by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuts to the school budget as well as delaying pay increases for county employees are on the table.
At the 11th hour, talks were under way between Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s administration and unions representing county employees.
John Sibiga, president of the Baltimore County Professional Firefighters Association, said they are negotiating with an eye on it having minimal impact on the union’s 1,100 members.
“We’re looking at all avenues to assist in doing our part, the firefighters’ part, in making sure that that budget comes in where it needs to come in,” Sibiga said.
A two percent cost of living raise for county employees is scheduled to take effect June 30. A spokesman for Olszewski says that raise is not at risk.
But the county council has the power to cut Olszewski’s proposed budget, and it intends to do just that at a meeting Thursday.
Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk said all options are in play.
“Labor does want to come to the table and be part of the solution,” Quirk said. “They recognize the dire situation that the county faces.”
Republican Councilman David Marks said he suspects labor organizations are looking at ways they might have to defer salary increases to help the county get through this emergency.
“No one wants layoffs and furloughs and that should be our objective," he said.
Marks said the message of shared sacrifice is getting through, and not just to labor unions. He said Thursday’s cuts will need to come throughout the county's budget.
That includes the county school system.
At a public hearing Wednesday on the school budget, Quirk point blank asked school Superintendent Darryl Williams if his administration is talking to the teachers’ union about delaying planned pay increases.
"I think that’s an option that we will have to look at," Williams responded.
In an interview with WYPR, Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said they’ve lost more than 300 teachers since last August, and that delaying a raise would make it harder to recruit and keep educators.
“There are other cuts that can be made that do not affect the people who are most directly involved with students,” Sexton said.
The county schools’ proposed budget is about $20 million above last year’s level of spending, which may be low hanging fruit for the council to cut Thursday.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Marks asked Williams if his administration can be trusted to make the right cuts if that $20 million is taken away.
“I don’t want that $20 million to be cut from classroom instruction and teachers,” Marks said. “If we give you a budget that’s $20 million less, I want that to come out of non-instructional areas.”
Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins asked Williams to make that commitment as well. He agreed.
“We will make that commitment," he said, "whatever the numbers may be, we will make that commitment to really preserve our classrooms as much as we can.”
The council is scheduled to make its cuts Thursday, then vote on the budget next week. If things get sticky though, they have more time. Legally, the budget does not have to be approved by the county council until June 1. It takes effect one month later.