The Baltimore County Council is poised to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year Friday with historic levels of cuts.
County employees likely will see raises deferred and the school system will take a hit as well. At the same time, the Republican minority on the council is considering proposing a tax cut at Friday’s meeting.
The council cut nearly $59 million from the budget on Thursday. Officials said that’s the largest cut the council has made to a proposed budget in its history.
A two percent pay raise county employees were supposed to get in January is being put off to next June.
Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, said the unions representing firefighters, police and other county employees agreed to the deferment.
“These were the real conversations,” Bevins said. "We can give you a two percent raise. But then do you want to be furloughed later? Do you want to be laid off later? These are the hard decisions that have to be made.”
Bevins said not giving county employees a raise in January was for her, the hardest part of cutting this budget.
“Because that’s real people, it’s their lives,” Bevins said. “It’s their incomes.”
About one third of the cuts, $20 million, is coming from the county schools. The Community College of Baltimore County will see a $4 million reduction.
County Council members had hoped they could avoid making massive cuts. They put off doing it for two weeks, hoping Congress would send money to states and local governments to help them deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19.
The calvary never came.
Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk said it’s possible help could come from Washington eventually.
“We know the president is in favor of state and local, some type of package,” Quirk said. “We know the Democratic leadership is in favor of some type of state and local package. But this is not a done deal.”
Quirk said it’s possible more cuts will have to be made to the budget down the road.
“God forbid we find ourselves, three, six, twelve months into this without the federal support, or maybe with a bigger deficit,” Quirk said.
Baltimore County, like other localities across the country, has seen a steep drop off in tax revenues. For instance, income tax collections are down significantly. More than 100,000 people in the county have filed for unemployment.
Republican Councilman David Marks said while this has been the most difficult budget he’s worked on, in one way it was easier.
“When you're running surpluses there is a competition for who is going to get the money," Marks said. "I think for this year we had to say ‘no’ and many people understood why.”
Marks said the three Republicans on the seven-member council are considering proposing a one penny cut to the personal property tax rate when the council meets for a final vote Friday morning.
“Families and businesses are hurting,” Marks said. “Many businesses have to still pay property taxes even though they haven’t had people on their payrolls for two months. Many households are in the same dilemma.”
Marks said If the Republicans propose the tax cut, they also will offer $9 million in additional cuts to the budget to offset that lost revenue.
It is unlikely, however, that a proposed tax cut would go anywhere in the Democratically-controlled council.
When Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski submitted his proposed budget to the council last month, he said it would focus on the basics: schools, public safety and the county workforce. But since then the county’s budget shortfall projection worsened.
The COVID-19 reality is that even the basics are taking a hit.