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In a Baltimore County budget battle, the County Council mostly fires blanks

The Baltimore County Council. Photo by John Lee/WYPR
John Lee/WYPR
The Baltimore County Council.

The Baltimore County Council holds its annual public hearing on the budget Tuesday night.

But in reality, the seven council members have little power over County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s nearly $5 billion spending plan.

There is a debate over whether the council and executive should have more authority or whether that could lead to both political and fiscal disaster.

The county executive holds nearly all of the budgetary cards. The county charter stipulates that the council can only cut his proposed budget.

A majority of council members, including Democrat Izzy Patoka who represents District 2, would like the council to have more say over how money is spent.

Patoka said, “We’re out at community meetings every single evening and so we hear about needs and I would love to be able to address some of those needs directly as a council member.”

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said having little budgetary power puts council members in a very awkward position.

“Here they are out there hearing the demands of their constituents but not being able to respond to them in budgetary terms in any significant way at all,” Crenson said.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat who represents District 4, said council members in the past have kicked around the idea of asking voters to change the charter to give them the authority to move money around.

Jones said they backed off because of the hassle that would create for them.

“Then we would be in play in terms of organizations and people would feel like, ok I didn’t get what I want the first time, so now what I’ll do is go to the council and lobby them,” Jones said.

Councilman Jones said it may be time for the council to consider it again.

“I think that it’s worthy of a discussion,” Jones said.

Republican Councilman David Marks, who represents District 5, agrees.

“What that does is it puts a lot of pressure on the county council to pick among many priorities,” Marks said. “I think you’ll have the unions competing for our attention. But it does sort of equalize the relationship between the executive and the county council.”

It takes at least five votes on the seven member county council to place a charter amendment on the ballot.

In interviews, five members expressed a desire to have more fiscal power. The other two, Democrat Pat Young and Republican Todd Crandell, did not return requests for comment.

The Baltimore County Council. Photo by John Lee/WYPR
John Lee/WYPR
The Baltimore County Council.

In 2020, 75% of Baltimore City voters approved a charter amendment giving the city council more budgeting authority. City Comptroller Bill Henry was on the City Council at the time. Henry said it was needed because in past years, mayors had refused to listen to council members.

“And the council in a situation like that had no choice,” Henry said. “There was no alternative. There was nothing they could do.”

By all accounts, that currently is not the story in Baltimore County. Council members said County Executive Olszewski listens to each of them about what they want funded in their districts.

Olszewski agrees. For that reason he said the county’s charter doesn’t need changing.

“That’s a conversation for future executives and councils,” Olszewski said. “But I think the way that we’ve worked and the relationship we have, that the budget reflects the priorities of our residents and of our council.”

But while things may be hunky dory now between this executive and the council, Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel, who represents District 6, noted that can change.

Ertel said, “I know in past administrations we’ve had county executives who have been spiteful of certain council people and wanted to cut things basically in their districts.”

Council members have suggested that since Olszewski is term limited, a charter amendment could be voted on that would take effect after he leaves office in 2026.

But a former county executive, Don Mohler, said changing the charter could open the county government up to D.C.-style bickering partisanship.

“And I just don’t want to do anything that could steer us in that direction,” Mohler said.

John Willis, executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs said local councils just aren’t very good at budgeting.

“There’s too much compromise,” Willis said. “There’s too much you do this for me, I do it for you. Too much log rolling. Too much special interest influence.”

Willis said the executive, on the other hand, has to look at the county-wide big picture. So if a council member wants more budgeting power, Willis said they should run for county executive.

Willis said, “You can’t have eight county execs.”

Councilman Ertel raised the idea of each council member having a discretionary fund so they could use the money to pay for needed projects in their districts.

“I want to replace these sidewalks, I’m going to take it out of my fund to be able to pay for this,” Ertel said. “Government needs to touch people in ways they haven’t had to touch them in the past in Baltimore County. We have a lot of needs that need to be dealt with.”

But Willis said that’s dangerous.

Willis said, “Then what you have is you have these little principalities, right? You have Baltimore County, but then you have these little slush funds in each area.”

The seven council members vote on Olszewski’s budget in about a month. The previous two years they did so without making any cuts to his spending plan.

“You wonder why they want this new power if they’re just going to go along,” JHU Professor Emeritus Crenson said. “Maybe this will make them disagree a little, and it might be healthy if they did.”

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