From a possible tax increase to new high schools, a lot is in play as Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski prepares to present his first budget to the County Council in about two weeks.
Olszewski is receiving high marks for how he’s handled his first four months in office. But this era of good feeling could be tested once Olszewski lays out his budget.
Olszewski is grappling with an $81 million budget deficit.
“We’re staring down a very difficult challenge here,” Olszewski said.
What could help is if the state comes through with more money for school construction. Olszewski said the House of Delegates has agreed to a package that would give the county more than $100 million for schools each year for the next four years, but that still needs to clear the Senate. Olszewski said that is critical.
“And we have that assurance that the state is going to be there and be a partner so that we can meet the school construction needs of not just our elementary and middle schools but also the high schools that are so desperately in need,” Olszewski said.
Councilman David Marks agrees it’s all about what the legislature decides to do before it adjourns April 8, one week before Olszewski presents his budget to council.
“That will determine the budget,” Marks said. "And that will determine how long the honeymoon lasts.”
Olszewski, who is a Democrat, is enjoying a honeymoon with council members from both parties. Marks, who is a Republican, gives Olszewski high marks.
“He’s obviously very intelligent,” Marks said. "He’s very charming. And the relationship between the council and the executive have never been better, I think.”
Marks praises Olszewski for holding town halls throughout the county to lay out the budget picture. Republican Councilman Wade Kach credits Olszewski for trying to get to the bottom of the county’s finances.
Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said county residents who were shut out of government by the Kamenetz administration are being let back in by Olszewski.
“He hit the ground running,” Bevins said. “He’s been busy non-stop. I think he is going to have a very challenging budget.”
John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, gives Olszewski an ‘A’ for his first several months in office. And Dedie adds if Olszewski is going to raise taxes, it would be politically smart to do it this year, as far away as possible from the next election.
“To do a lot of the things he wanted to do during his campaign, you need additional revenue,” Dedie said. “And the problem is there is only so much you can cut.”
The administration wants you to know first-hand how difficult the budget process is this year.
Visit baltimorecountymd.gov, and you’ll find an interactive breakdown of the budget. You can cut things, raise taxes, build high schools, whatever. The goal is to balance the budget. But head’s up, you have to start with an $81 million deficit. So, you too can feel Olszewski’s pain.
For example, if you add a dime to the property tax rate you wipe away the deficit and end up with a surplus of more than $4 million. But that is a non-non-starter for Councilman Kach, who said a property tax hike would price some people out of their homes.
“Under no circumstances will I support a property tax increase,” Kach said.
But Dulaney High School is in Kach’s district. He said a new Dulaney has to be in the budget.
So if you go back to the budget calculator, get rid of the tax increase and add a new high school, the budget deficit for the coming year is up to nearly $87 million.
You get the idea.