Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski made few promises Tuesday night, as he held a virtual town hall and heard from residents about what they would like to see in next year’s budget.
Olszewski presents his proposed budget to the county council next week. The high cost of the coronavirus pandemic is wrecking what Olszewski had hoped would be in that spending plan.
At Tuesday night’s streamed town hall, Olszewski sat in his conference room, and read more than 30 questions from residents sent in via email and text. They were the typical kind of budget town hall requests, ranging from better lighting for parks, to new schools, to better draining to prevent flooding.
But Olszewski made no promises about any of those requests.
“There are a lot of projects that we were hoping to move forward on this year that we simply won’t be able to, including a lot of my priorities,” Olszewski said.
Instead, Olszewski said his budget will focus on three basics of local government: public safety, education, and county employees. When one questioner asked specifically about protecting the jobs of teachers, Olszewski said employees are the county's most valuable resource.
"I will be working with the council to do all that we can to prioritize them in these difficult times ahead," Olszewski said. "The county is not immune to the impacts of the economic downturn, just like so many of our families are facing that difficult time.”
Olszewski said dealing with the pandemic is costing the county tens of millions of dollars in spending on things like protective gear and pay for first responders and cleaning supplies. At the same time he said revenues are projected to be down tens of millions of dollars as well as tax and fee collections take a major hit.
Olszewski said it’s unchartered territory.
“Our schools are closed," Olszewski said. "Our businesses are shut down. And we have neighbors in every community who don’t know where or when they’ll get their next paycheck.”
On Monday, at a streamed meeting of Baltimore County’s Economic Advisory Committee, economic advisor Anirban Basu laid out that unknown road ahead.
“We’re less than one month into this crisis," Basu said. "The economy is already falling apart and we’re going to be in the crisis for at least another one, two three months? That’s what Baltimore County is up against. That’s all I’m suggesting. It’s going to be quite dire.”
Basu, who produces the Morning Economic Report on WYPR, said usually you can’t call it a recession until there has been an economic downturn over two consecutive quarters. This recession hit in just a few weeks.
Basu predicted the recession will be short, but vicious, and that there will be a lot of empty storefronts in Baltimore County.
Once this is over, Basu said he expects eventually there will be a quick, but not complete recovery.
Basu said, “Because you’re going to have a lot of companies that are going to be in very bad financial shape, a lot of state and local governments that absent the federal support will be in very bad fiscal shape. And a lot of households, of course, in very bad shape financially.”
One bit of encouraging news, though.
Baltimore County hopes to receive around $144 million in federal aid. That’s based on an estimate from Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services. And it’s estimating an additional $24 million in aid for the county schools.
Olszewski presents his 2020-2021 fiscal year budget to the Baltimore County Council April 14.