Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler will step aside on Monday, December 3, to make way for county executive-elect Johnny Olszewski Junior. WYPR reporter John Lee talked with Morning Edition host Nathan Sterner about his interview with Mohler, in which they discussed what is perhaps the biggest challenge that awaits Olszewski as he takes office.
Sterner: What’s Mohler’s take on what lies ahead for Olszewski?
Lee: Well, first, let me say Mohler is a big fan of Olszewski’s. Both are Democrats and Mohler campaigned for him. But what’s waiting for Olszewski is what Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk calls a very extreme situation. Quirk is the chairman of the spending affordability committee. And earlier this month the county received a financial analysis that boils down to this: Baltimore County’s AAA bond rating is in danger of being downgraded unless the county raises taxes, cuts its debt or both. If the Triple A goes away it makes it more expensive for the county to borrow money.
Sterner: Why is the county in this jam?
Lee: The county took on a lot of debt building 16 new schools and renovating some others. Mohler says the cost was around $1.6 billion, and the results speak for themselves. They went from 90 schools without air conditioning to just a few now.
Mohler: “Do I have any regrets that we did that program? Absolutely none. I think it was necessary. I think it was a necessary investment. I think the parents and the children and the teachers would all agree that it’s exactly what we needed. But now the bill for many of the projects now is going to come due.”
Lee: So Mohler says Olszewski and the County Council will have to figure out how to pay that bill, not to mention find money to build more schools and additions. Olszewski during the campaign promised to spend up to $2 billion on school infrastructure. And again this comes, as the county is being warned its debt level is out of whack, so it should consider raising taxes, cutting its debt, or both.
Sterner: Is Mohler offering any advice to Olszewski on how to deal with this?
Lee: He is. Mohler says during the transition he talks to Olszewski at least once a day. Mohler has a lot of experience. He spent 30 years in the school system, working his way up from teacher to area superintendent. Then he segued into positions in the county executive’s office first with Jim Smith, then serving as Kevin Kamenetz’s chief of staff. He says during those years, county officials did not do enough to make government more transparent, to let citizens know and get involved in the budget. Really to buy in to what they were doing. He expects Olszewski will change that.
Mohler: “So people often want to simplify it in, ‘do you need a tax increase or not a tax increase?’ I think that’s the wrong question. I think the question is, ‘what are the priorities for Baltimore County? What do you care about? What do you want to spend on? Do you believe we need to build two or three new high schools?’ If you do, then let’s look at the budget and figure out how we do that?”
Lee: That’s a reference to Olszewski’s promise to find the money to build three new high schools for Lansdowne, Towson and Dulaney.
Sterner: So what’s next for Mohler?
Lee: Once Olszewski takes over Monday, Mohler says he will take a month off, then consider some possibilities outside of government.
You’ll recall he was appointed county executive by the Council after Kamenetz’s sudden death in May. He says he’s proud of the 7 1/2 years he served as Kamenetz’s chief of staff and of his six months as county executive. Mohler says he was able to pick up where Kamenetz left off with no lapse of leadership, including almost immediately seeing the county through some difficult days, with the killing of police officer Amy Caprio and flooding in Oella and Catonsville.