This week, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski will begin holding town hall meetings on the budget for this coming year.
Last year, the county raised taxes for the first time in a generation to close an $81 million shortfall. But officials say that does not mean the county is out of the fiscal woods yet, and tough decisions lie ahead.
WYPR’s John Lee joined Morning Edition host Nathan Sterner in the studio to talk about what is at stake.
Sterner: John, are more tax increases on the table for this coming year?
Lee: It appears unlikely. County Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat, chairs the council’s spending affordability committee, which will issue its annual report on the county’s fiscal health later this week.
Quirk says there is no desire to raise taxes again. But with that said there are some multi-year, big ticket items that are going to have to be paid for somehow. For instance, Quirk says the health and life insurance fund for county retirees is in trouble, partly because money was taken out of it by the Kamenetz administration for school construction.
Quirk says at some point retirees are going to have to pay more for their health care.
Quirk: “And not just a little bit, a fair amount.”
Lee: Ed Blades, who is Olszewski’s budget director, says they are trying to avoid retirees paying more by putting more money in the fund and looking for ways to save money by restructuring plans. He says it's too soon to have the details on that. Blades says currently the county needs to put around $115 million in the fund each year to break even. During the last year of the Kamenetz administration that investment had been reduced to around $5.3 million.
Blades: So $5.3 million obviously could nor cover a $115 million expenditure."
Lee: Blades says if the county does nothing the fund for retirees would run dry in 2025, but he says the administration is committed to makins sure that does not happen.
Sterner: When you mentioned future big ticket items, you used the plural. What are some others?
Lee: For one, Councilman Quirk says paying the county’s share of the Kirwan Commission’s plan to increase spending for public schools, if that proposal passes the legislature. And another big one has to do with climate change. Quirk’s district includes Catonsville and Oella, both hit by flooding during heavy rains in 2018. Quirk says it’s clear the county’s stormwater system won’t be able to handle the downpours that scientists predict are in the offing.
Quirk: “And so it’s a multi-billion dollar problem that we’re putting a few million dollars a year toward.”
Lee: And Quirk points out Olszewski also likes to spend money on new initiatives, and money for those have to come from somewhere too. For instance, last year Olszewski created several new positions, including a Chief Sustainability Officer, an Opioid Strategy Coordinator and a Chief Diversity Officer.
Republican Councilman David Marks is also on the spending affordability committee. He says the county’s priorities this coming year should be school construction and hiring more teachers and police officers, while at the same time looking for fat in the budget.
Marks: “I think there has to be much more aggressive way to cut back the spending we really don’t need.”
Lee: Councilman Marks says he will offer up ways to do that once he sees the county executive’s budget in April.
Sterner: What has county executive Olszewski had to say about what is going to be in his budget this coming year?
Lee: Nothing too specific yet. As you mentioned a minute ago, Olszewski will be holding town halls on the budget. The first one is Tuesday in Owings Mills. You may remember he did the same thing last year and at that time laid out a bleak budget picture. The town halls attracted hundreds of people and were used to justify the inevitable tax increases Olszewski proposed. Again, another round of tax increases does not appear to be in the cards for the county in 2020. When asked about them, Olszewski always says they are a last resort but never rules them out. However, neither he nor the council appears interested in going down that road again this year.