Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Tuesday laid out a proposed $3.9 billion budget for the county for the next fiscal year far different from what he expected it would be just one month ago.
Olszewski said the COVID-19 pandemic in the blink of an eye has created a new reality.
The Baltimore County Executive traditionally delivers his budget message in person to the county council. But on Tuesday, Olszewski sat in his office and streamed the speech. Several staff members were in the room. An Olszewski spokesman said the staffers wore masks and stood more than six feet apart.
Olszewski said county revenues have taken a $40 million hit, and that number could grow even as the county council reviews the budget over the next month. Olszewski said there is not much room for extras.
“This means there are many additional people like teachers that we will not be able to hire,” Olszewski said. “It means there are other important programs and initiatives that will need to be deferred or reconsidered. It also means we must forgo funding tens of millions of dollars in capital pay as you go priorities.”
Specifically, many projects like parks, playing fields, senior centers and road construction will not receive funding.
And since the money isn’t there for hiring new teachers, Olszewski recommends that school superintendent Darryl Williams move 169 staff development teachers into the classroom.
In a statement released late Tuesday afternoon, Williams said, "We will review what Baltimore County Public Schools has been allotted in the county executive's budget, and we will make decisions about how best to proceed. Striving to hire additional teacher positions in alignment with our enrollment growth and providing professional development for all our teachers and leaders is paramount."
In the budget Williams sent to Olszewski, he requested 115 new teaching positions to handle increased enrollment, as well as 124 teachers for Title 1 and focus schools. Williams also wanted more special educators and additional teachers for English for Speakers of Other Languages programs.
Teachers will get a one percent cost of living pay bump July 1st. And there is $1 million set aside to hire more school counselors and support staff.
Much of what Olszewski wants to do for schools hinges on money from the state, which is estimating its own financial hit of up to $2.8 billion due to COVID-19. If the state money isn’t there for the county, Olszewski said school construction projects will be delayed. And you can forget about some initiatives for inside the classroom as well.
Olszewski said, “The truth of the matter is this. An expansion towards universal pre-kindergarten, more robust college and career readiness programming, and additional support for teachers and students alike will only happen with the state funding.”
There are some new initiatives in this budget. As of Tuesday, Baltimore County has its own 3-1-1 non-emergency call center. In an interview with WYPR after his speech, Olszewski said in the past, thousands of people have tried to call that number in the county to no avail.
“We thought that given the need and that it was sustained, that having live operators to help direct people to the resources of the county was a smart investment to continue into this upcoming fiscal year,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski also wants cameras on school buses to catch drivers who pass stopped buses illegally. There is money in the budget to restart glass recycling. And he wants to create an audit compliance unit. Part of its job would be to track the tens of millions of dollars the county is spending in its response to COVID-19 so it can ask for reimbursement from the federal government.
Olszewski, who is a Democrat, said this is a budget that has to focus on the bread and butter of local government: education, public safety, and county employees. Republican County Councilman David Marks agreed.
“We want to make sure that our teachers, police and firefighters are still well paid,” Marks said. “I think it was appropriate where we have to have reductions to have them on the capital budget side.”
The county negotiated with the unions that represent county employees a two percent raise that takes effect June 30. That raise is still in the budget. They get another two percent hike later in the year.
The County Council cannot add to Olszewski’s budget. It can only make cuts. Marks said he doubts there will be much of that since the county executive has already cut the spending plan significantly.