The Baltimore County Council passed Friday its budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but not before an acrimonious debate over whether to cut property taxes.
Council members said they had to make historic cuts totaling nearly $59 million to the budget to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The three Republicans on the council, who are outnumbered by Democrats on the seven member board, proposed cutting the personal property tax rate by a penny. That touched off a partisan debate, including a scrum between Democratic Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins and Republican Todd Crandell. Crandell accused Bevins of cutting off the debate.
“I want everyone to see how this works,” Crandell said. “This is how it works. This is how your Baltimore County Council works.”
Bevins countered, “Quit grandstanding Todd. We’ve had enough.”
Before the proposed tax cut came up, council members were congratulating each other on how bipartisan and collaborative the budget talks had been. They had agreed unanimously to the nearly $59 million in cuts they made to County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s budget. Then the bipartisanship went out the window.
More than 100,000 people in the county have filed for unemployment during this pandemic. The Republicans on the council said people hit by the COVID-19 recession need tax relief.
The personal property tax rate has not been raised in Baltimore County in more than a generation. But Republican Councilman Wade Kach said assessments on homes keep rising, so people’s tax bills are going up, too.
“I’d like to see some kind of lid on property taxes because it is beginning to get very challenging for some families,” Kach said.
Bevins said she understands that.
“I know myself, I pay property taxes,” Bevins said. “For 11 years I paid them on the waterfront. I understand when you saying when they go up. But it’ not the county, it’s the assessment.”
The Democrats were in no mood to make the additional $9 million in cuts necessary to pay for the proposed tax reduction. It was voted down on a party line vote. With the county’s economic outlook cratering, Democratic Councilman Julian Jones said they need the money.
“It’s to pay for the teachers,” Jones said. “It’s to pay for the schools. It’s to pay for the fire department, the police department, the detention center. Let’s not forget the money that we’re spending here is providing vital services to the citizens of Baltimore County.”
As for the budget cuts, a two percent pay raise for county employees that was supposed to kick in in January was deferred to next June. That was an agreement hammered out with the unions.
The council axed $20 million from the proposed school budget. That means county spending on the school system will remain the same this coming fiscal year. The council has no say in how the school system deals with losing the $20 million. Bevins recommended deferring any teacher pay raises. Republican David Marks said he believes there is fat that can be cut in administration.
“My hope would be that as the school board looks at this reduction, it does its best to minimize disruption to classroom instruction, and truly seek efficiencies in administration,” Marks said.
The council is also taking $12 million out of the county’s fund for retirees’ health benefits. Bevins promised the council is committed to putting more money into the fund in the future.
The vote on the $3.5 billion budget was unanimous, but Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, chairman of the council’s spending affordability committee, said they are not out of the woods. Quirk said the county needs Congress to send money to state and local governments soon to help them deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Quirk said, “If we don’t get federal help, we will absolutely, in my view, see furloughs, maybe job eliminations in the next three to six months.”