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Baltimore County’s top executive Olszewski lays out plans for his second term

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski is starting his second four year term in office on Dec. 5.
John Lee
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski is starting his second four year term in office on Dec. 5.

When Johnny Olszewski is sworn in for his second four-year term as Baltimore County Executive, he will find himself in charge of a county awash in money for now but faces financial headwinds in the future. Record high inflation means that it costs much more for local governments to do or purchase anything and the financial cushion from federal COVID-19 relief funds is rapidly drying up. Controversial issues like a proposed plastic bag plan or imposing restrictions on developers building new housing near overcrowded schools are likely to be on Olszewski’s full plate.

Beyond that, there’s a lingering question about how much autonomy the Baltimore County Inspector General’s office, the taxpayer watchdog, should have over elected officials and county workers.

Olszewski said he plans to hit the ground running for his second term.

“I expect that early in December, we’ll start rolling out some legislative initiatives,” Olszewski said.

Stopping in at the Wawa on Joppa Road in Towson, Amanda Vogel, who lives in Perry has a suggestion about what should be a higher priority. The county should fix potholes faster.

“Any little pothole with a sewer top, anything that dips down, my car sounds like the wheels are going to fall off because it hits so hard,” Vogel said.

Meantime at the Sparks Village Shopping Center in North County, Kiarra White said she wants more money for recreational programs.

“Keep these kids busy,” White said. “Keep them off the streets.”

Olszewski said he will be spending more on the bread and butter issues of local government, like parks and recreation and paving roads.

The top elected county official said he plans to keep building and renovating schools, adding more affordable housing and creating jobs.

“We’re going to be relentless,” Olszewski said. “We’re constantly seeking excellence. My goal is by the time I leave this term, that Baltimore County is a world-class jurisdiction, that communities and counties across the country are consistently looking toward to say ‘how are you doing it there?’”

Republican councilman David Marks wants to see Baltimore County ban plastic bags.

“I represent a waterfront district that is oriented around the quality of the Chesapeake Bay,” Marks said. “We have an increased volume of plastic bags that are going into our tributaries, but also helping to lead to an accumulation in our landfill.”

Marks represents District 5, which includes communities along Bird and Middle Rivers.

Baltimore City’s plastic bag ban went into effect in October 2021 but it took more than 15 years after city council members initially proposed the rule. Retailers are required to charge customers at least 5 cents per paper bag and remit 1 cent fees for each bag to the city. There’s been a 5 cent fee on all bags in Washington D.C. since 2010.

In Baltimore County, councilman Marks said it’s a question of whether or not to charge a fee in the county if consumers don’t bring a reusable bag but take home a paper bag supplied by the retailer.

Olszewski declined to say whether he supports a plastic bag plan for this story but said he would share his thoughts in a future announcement.

Councilman Marks, who is entering his fourth four-year term and is the longest serving member of the council, also wants the county to close loopholes that allow developers to build homes near schools that are already overcrowded. A county task force study into the issue has been gathering dust on a shelf for nearly two years because of opposition from the homebuilding industry, he said.

“Nothing has really moved on that since the last term,” Marks said. “So that’s got to be a priority.”

Developers claim the overcrowding problem could be addressed by the school board shifting children to less crowded schools.

Olszewski said he’s willing to talk to the county council about it.

“Both on that issue and countless others,” Olszewski said. “We’ll be engaging with what really is a new council.”

There are two new members on the seven member council. The council remains politically split 4-3 in favor of the Democrats.

Retiring Councilman Tom Quirk, who for years chaired the council’s spending affordability committee, said Olszewski needs to be careful how he spends the county’s money, even though it has a surplus of more than $600 million.

“It seems like, yeah we’re in a position to do a lot more,” Quirk said. “And I’m like, nah we’re not really. Because when you look at some of that inflationary pressure and you look at the borrowing cost with interest rates being higher, you look at the capital costs, prices have definitely gone up and that’s not just for the taxpayer out there. That’s also for governments out there.”

Baltimore County received $160 million through the federal COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, during his first term in office but that’s drying up.

Olszewski agreed if his administration is not fiscally responsible, that surplus could be squandered quickly.

“We’re not blowing past the guideposts that are set for us by the council,” Olszewski said. “But we are also tackling some really big and tricky longstanding issues that had really vexed prior administrations.”

For instance, Olszewski is still working on a campaign promise he made four years ago to build three new high schools. Ground has been broken on one of them, Lansdowne High. The other two, Dulaney and Towson, are in the design phase.

Perhaps the biggest public black eye Olszewski got during his first term was his handling of the county inspector general, a position he created.

Last year, following complaints about Inspector General Kelly Madigan from two county council members, Olszewski proposed an oversight board for the county’s watchdog. He then backed off after receiving a firestorm of criticism from other members of the council who complained that the oversight board would be packed with political appointees who would have too much control over Madigan.

Olszewski then tapped a new commission to take a deep dive into how the inspector general’s office should operate. As Olszewski’s second term begins, the details of that office are still being hashed out.

“If things are not in alignment with my values and the direction I’m trying to move this county, we take a step back,” Olszewski said. “We listen to concerns and criticism. And I think sometimes good leaders have to accept that when people raise concerns, we should listen.”

The county also needs a new police chief.

Olszewski announced recently that Chief Melissa Hyatt, who he appointed in 2019, is stepping down this month. County leaders declined to say whether or not Hyatt was resigning or fired.

Earlier this year, Hyatt got a no confidence vote from the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of the Police. Councilman Quirk said it’s good that there will be a change.

“Having the right person lead the police department I think is absolutely mission critical,” Quirk said.

Olszewski, a former teacher, has sometimes criticized the leaders of the school system. He groused about poor communication following the ransomware attack in 2020. This past year he joined council members in complaining about how the county schools were handling staff shortages.

In 2021, he pushed for state legislation that would have allowed the county inspector general to have oversight of the school system. That idea went nowhere in the General Assembly. The county hands over about half of its $4 billion budget to the schools but has little say in how the money is spent.

School Superintendent Darryl Williams’ contract expires in June. Olszewski declined to comment about whether he wants the school board to extend Williams’ contract.

“I believe that this school board will hopefully act quickly to have certainty,” Olszewski said. “I think as a parent, I’d like to know what the plan is for school leadership within BCPS.”

Olszewski said he is running a more transparent and open administration than his predecessors. Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown NAACP agreed.

“We do have a person that we can work with, that will listen to us and quite frankly take some action,” Coleman said.

Specifically, Coleman praised Olszewski’s decision to spend $10 million to buy the old Sears building at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn to try to resuscitate that shopping center.

“There was some considerable pushback on the county executive to buying that building,” Coleman said. “Was it too much? Was that the role of government to do this?

Olszewski won his second term by defeating Republican Pat McDonough, a former state Delegate, with 64% of the vote. As he prepares for his next four years, Olszewski said he wants to leave Baltimore County much better than he found it.

“I said four years ago I was looking through the eyes of my three year old,” Olszewski said. “Now I’m looking through the eyes of a seven year old. And by the time this journey’s over, she’s 11.”

Olszewski, as well as members of the county council and the school board will be sworn in on Dec. 5 at 10 a.m. in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College.

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