Baltimore County Council meetings are usually civil affairs. But Thursday afternoon’s meeting broke out in to partisan warfare over the proposed county budget. It was a classic fight over tax hikes, new schools and budget cuts.
It came near the end of a hearing on the school budget. Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Democrat, questioned how the Republicans on the council, like David Marks, on one hand won’t go along with raising taxes, but on the other hand want things like new high schools to be built in their districts.
Quirk said, “But when it comes increasing revenues to actually pay for those schools, suddenly you guys go pretty quiet. So Councilman Marks, maybe you might be able to respond?”
Marks replied, “Are you prepared to talk about the discussion that went on leading up to the budget submission and why your high school advanced and ours didn’t?”
Marks is referring to the fact that County Executive Johnny Olszewski, a Democrat, put $15 million in planning money in his budget for a new Lansdowne High School, which is in fellow Democrat Councilman Quirk’s district. But there was no planning money for new high schools for Towson and Dulaney, both in Republican districts. Marks said that was a political decision by Olszewski. Both Olszewski and Quirk deny that.
A couple of minutes later, Quirk asked Marks again about how he would find money for new schools without raising taxes.
“I’d just like to ask publicly, very publicly, what’s your solution on how we can get these schools quicker?” Quirk asked.
Marks said, “Tell you what Councilman Quirk, you agree to $30 million in cuts to this budget and then we’ll talk.”
$30 million would pay for planning money for both a new Dulaney and Towson High Schools.
When Marks questioned Quirk about him openly challenging him when they were trying to pass a bipartisan budget, there was this final exchange.
“Then please help us on the revenue side,” Quirk said. “I want to watch you do it.”
“Watch me I’m trying real hard,” Marks replied.
Perhaps the boiling over at the Council meeting should come as no surprise. The Council is split, four Democrats and three Republicans. There are several tax increases on the table, including hiking the income tax rate, taxing cell phone accounts, increasing the hotel room tax and charging developers impact fees. Olszewski said the new revenue is needed to cut an $81 million deficit, while at the same time deal with a long list of things people want and need in the county.
Marks said he was trying to find middle ground, where he could support increasing the tax on hotel rooms and charging developers and Democrats would go along with budget cuts. Quirk said those tax increases that Marks may support will not raise much money. It’s the proposed income tax hike and the cell phone tax that together would raise more than $60 million.
Marks is sponsoring legislation to charge developers impact fees. It is estimated that would bring in about $10 million annually.
Before Thursday’s meeting, Republican Councilman Todd Crandell, who represents the Dundalk area, said he will support none of the proposed tax increases. Crandell said there is fat in the budget, including in the school system’s spending plan.
“I don’t think that the success of a school system is directly proportional to the amount of money that you put in to it,” Crandell said. “If that were the case, then Baltimore City would be an excellent school system, and we all know that it’s not.”
But Olszewski said when you have both an $81 million deficit and residents who are clamoring for things like more money for schools, taxes have to go up. Cuts alone won’t get it done.
“There’s no way possible that you can do that without laying off employees and cutting critical services,” Olszewski said. “And that’s not the kind of county I want to live in.”
The County Council will vote on the budget this coming Thursday.