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Baltimore County Council approves budget, police accountability board

Baltimore County Council. Credit: John Lee
Baltimore County Council. Credit: John Lee

The Baltimore County Council took aim at both the school system and the police department Thursday as it passed the $4.8 billion county budgetfor the coming fiscal year.

The council also approved a controversial police accountability board made up of citizens that will look into police misconduct.

While discussing the budget, council members complained the county does not have enough police officers, teachers and school bus drivers.

Republican David Marks said both police precincts and school classrooms are understaffed.

“These two issues, public safety and public schools are undermining the sense of confidence many people have in local government,” Marks said.

Council members want the police and the schools to rethink how they hire people. They have a major beef about the shortage of drivers causing a chronic problem of late or no-show school buses.

In his critique, Democrat Tom Quirk gave a shout out to how well County Health Officer Dr. Gregory Branch has handled the COVID response.

Quirk said, “I almost would hope we could put Dr. Branch in charge of school buses because he could fix it, believe me he could fix it.”

Both school and police officials say they are struggling to hire and retain employees, adding that it is an issue for school systems and police departments nationwide.

The County Council’s only power when it comes to the budget is to make cuts. For the second year in a row it chose not to exercise that authority.

“We looked at every office and department and clearly some of us expressed concerns,” Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat said. “However, we determined unanimously as a body that spending cuts were not warranted this year.”

A key reason no cuts were made is that County Executive Johnny Olszewski has a lot of money to spread around, thanks in part to hundreds of millions of dollars the county has received in COVID relief as well as additional funding from the state for school construction.

All seven council members are getting pet projects in their districts, from new schools to money for parks and senior centers.

Republican Todd Crandell said, “I’m going to vote for this budget. I did not suggest any cuts to the budget, maybe for the first time since I’ve been in office.

“We have long standing overdue capital projects. We have a lot of work to do in Baltimore County.”

The council also did not change the county’s property tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of assessed value.

After the vote, Olszewski released a statement saying the budget “provides historic funding for public education, public safety and other key priorities.”

The police accountability board the council voted to create has been controversial with opponents who say as designed it will have little power.

Council members debated Thursday whether to allow convicted felons to serve on the board, deciding to permit it 10 years after they serve their time.

All Maryland localities are required to set up police accountability boards by July 1 under a law passed by the General Assembly during its 2021 session.

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