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Without Federal Help, Baltimore County Council Members Warn Of Deep Budget Cuts

Lauren Watley, Baltimore County Government

The Baltimore County Council, like localities across the country, is wrestling with a budget that has been wrecked by COVID 19.

Council members are making no promises that they will be able to protect the jobs of all teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other county employees.

The council is examining County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s proposed budget. Olszewski said a top priority is not cutting county jobs. But at an online public hearing Tuesday night, Republican Councilman David Marks said unless the federal government offers some help, it will be very difficult to avoid cuts. 

“All of us have the same goals to make sure that our neighborhoods are safe and healthy, that our citizens are protected, and to get through this economic calamity as quickly as possible,” Marks said.

Tax collections are down and projections show a revenue shortfall of as much as $200 million for the county for the next fiscal year.

Council members are meeting Wednesday with Senator Chris Van Hollen to see if he can offer any insight into whether they can count on help from Washington.

Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat, urged people to contact their congressman and senators to remind the federal government what local governments do.

“Police are important,” Quirk said. “Teachers are important. Our firefighters are important. The people who work on roads and pick up the trash, all of those people are important.”

Tuesday night’s discussion indicated it’s not a matter of if, but when the county council will make cuts to Olszewski’s budget. The council has the power to cut Olszewski’s proposed budget. It cannot add to it or move money around.

The county council is scheduled to approve a county budget May 21, that takes effect  July 1. Councilman Izzy Patoka, a Democrat, suggested they could hold off on making some cuts until the county has a clearer picture of what revenues are coming in.

“My concern is that we start to cut away at the core,” Patoka said.

Several council members countered that it would be better to make cuts now.

Republican Councilman Wade Kach said, “The longer you wait to address the revenues that are decreasing, the more the cuts are draconian that you need to make.”

When Olszewski presented his proposed budget to the county council earlier this month, it included $20 million for schools above last year’s spending. Localities are required by state law to spend at least as much on education from one year to the next.

In a letter sent to Olszewski Monday, Quirk said everything needs to be on the table, including possibly cutting up to $20 million from the proposed school budget.

Quirk, who is the chairman of the council’s spending affordability committee, said they also need to talk to the labor unions about possibly giving up pay raises county employees are slated to receive later this year.

In an interview with WYPR, Quirk said, “I’m certain that labor, working together with the county, would prefer to protect jobs, and if push came to shove delay cost of living adjustments. At some point we have to make tough decisions because otherwise the county might be forced to furlough or even to terminate different jobs.”

In a statement to WYPR, Olszewski said, “My proposed budget included a revenue write down of $40 million and made clear that an additional write down may be necessary during this budget process.”

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