Olszewski's Proposed Budget Includes $2 Billion For Schools, Return Of Bulk Trash Pickup, Multiple Projects Across The County
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski presented his proposed $4.2 billion operating budget to the county council Thursday.
After two years of dealing with budget crises, Olszewski is spreading money around as the county emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic economy.
Last Spring, in the depths and uncertainty of the pandemic, Olszewski cut $100 million from the budget. The year before, he was dealing with an $81 million budget shortfall he inherited when he took office. But Thursday’s budget message told a different story. The county collected more in taxes than it was expecting, and it received tens of millions of dollars from the federal government in COVID relief.
“Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Olszewski told the council.
Half of the budget, more than $2 billion, is for education. It includes money to keep 122 teaching positions that were going to be cut because of declining enrollment.
There is also $67 million toward replacing the dilapidated Lansdowne High School as well as money for 3 new elementary schools.
Olszewski told the council, “Over the past several years I’ve traveled to every corner of the county, and I’ve seen an incredible need: severe overcrowding, brown drinking water, and schools that are literally crumbling into the ground.”
He said for the third year in a row, tuition will be frozen at the Community College of Baltimore County for county residents.
Olszewski’s budget is chock full of new spending on bread-and-butter stuff local government does. He got his biggest applause when he announced bulk trash pickup would be returning for the first time since 1992.
Council Chairman Julian Jones said until now the county hasn’t been able to afford it.
“Hopefully by doing that, that will cut down on people’s need to dump on the side of the roadside,” Jones said.
Republican Councilman David Marks, who is in his third term, said Olszewski, a Democrat, presented one of the best budgets he’s seen. Marks said it contains projects he’s wanted for years.
“Drainage projects, trails, sewer upgrades,” Marks said. “Things that aren’t glamorous but very important to everyday people.”
Olszewski’s budget also does away with overdue fines for library books.
“Which burden our most vulnerable residents,” Olszewski said. “Often the same people who need the library services the most.”
The county also will hire six additional code enforcement inspectors.
Olszewski is proposing hiring an immigrant affairs specialist. He said Latino residents make up 6 percent of the county’s population but account for 10 percent of its COVID cases. He said language barriers make them harder to reach.
“We must build bridges where we know there are gaps,” Olszewski said. “That has always been true, and again the global pandemic has only served to underscore that point.”
When Olszewski took office in December 2018, he said the fund for county employees’ retirement health care and life insurance benefits had been drained by previous administrations and was heading for insolvency. There is $70 million in the budget to shore it up.
What is not in the budget is a tax cut.
“Oh, I think the Republicans would certainly prefer a property tax cut,” Marks said. “We will be combing through the budget to see where there can be cost savings.”
That isn’t likely to get much traction since the council is controlled by Democrats. Chairman Jones said now is not the time for a tax cut.
Olszewski presented his budget to the county council in person, in council chambers. Few others were in the room. Last year’s budget message was streamed from his office during the height of the pandemic. In an interview after Thursday’s speech, Olszewski said the applause he received caught him by surprise.
“It was so nice to be back in person even in a modified sort of way,” Olszewski said. “We didn’t even account for applause lines as we prepared the speech.”
The county council will now review Olszewski’s budget. It can only cut his proposed spending plan. The council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 27.