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Baltimore County Council Told Federal COVID Money Can't Be Used For Budget Shortfall

Baltimore County

States and localities across the country are hoping for help from Washington as they grapple with huge deficits.

They are spending millions responding to COVID-19 while at the same time their tax revenues are drying up.

Baltimore County has received $144 million in help from the federal government, but it can't be used to plug a revenue shortfall estimated at close to $200 million.

The county council was told in a budget briefing Thursday that the $144 million comes with strings attached. It can be used to repay the county for COVID-19 expenses, but not to fill holes in the budget caused by the loss of tax revenues.

“It’s strictly for covid-related extra costs that have hit your budget and other things that you are doing to assist the community,” explained Kevin Reed, the deputy director of Baltimore County’s budget and finance department,

Members of the county council met Wednesday with Sen. Chris Van Hollen to discuss whether any additional federal help might be on the way.

The council is considering making deep cuts to Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s proposed budget to deal with the projected shortfall. Council members have indicated it will be difficult not to furlough or layoff county employees like teachers, police officers and firefighters without more federal assistance.

Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, chairman of the spending and affordability committee, said Van Hollen was asked if localities could have more flexibility when it comes to spending the federal COVID-19 money.

“The problem is we’re in a really short window to get this budget together,” Quirk said.

The council is scheduled to approve the fiscal 2020-2021 budget May 21.

Quirk said they also talked to Van Hollen about whether more money might be coming from the federal government to help local governments with their revenue shortfalls, but were given no guarantees.

“We can’t budget on hope and we can’t budget on speculation,” Quirk said. “We can only budget on what we know today.”

Deputy County Auditor Elizabeth Irwin told the council that the revenue it takes in from the income tax is taking a big hit, and not only because more than 50,000 county residents have filed for unemployment.

“There are a lot of people at the higher ends of salaries that are taking big cuts and that’s all taxable income,” Irwin said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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