By Peta Richkus.
Tuesday evening, April 30,2019, the hearing on the budget proposed by County Executive John Olszewski was held in the Council chambers in front of a standing-room-only crowd. Residents were invited to testify, and the “sign-up sheet” filled five pages. Over the next two weeks, County agency budgets will be reviewed. All of the budget meetings are open to the public. Budget deliberations may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but the direction of Baltimore County’s future will be set to a large degree by the Council’s actions on the budget and the associated legislation. (A summary of the proposed budget is available).
Thanks to the efforts made by the County Executive and his administration toward increased transparency and citizen engagement, I have been able to join other county residents in getting to know the County’s current budget situation in greater detail than seemed possible in the past. I have attended most of the meetings of the Fiscal Stability Commission. I was among the crowd in the Council chamber on the April 15th for the County Executive’s Budget Message. And I was among the hundreds of County residents who crowded into one of the town halls co-hosted by County Executive Olszewski and Council representatives in every District.
The questions asked by Baltimore County residents in the course of those Town Halls were an expression of the wants and needs of our citizens—wants and needs for a quality of life that long-time residents have felt was deteriorating before our eyes. And a quality of life that new residents have come to feel has not lived up to the promise that shaped their decision to move here. This is why there is so much support for the modest fees and income tax proposals now being considered. I congratulate County Executive Olszewski for listening to his constituents, accepting input from his Blue-Ribbon Fiscal Stability Commission, and for proposing a budget that takes on the tough problems with real concern for the County, its residents, and our future. (And I thank the hard-working County employees who identified more than $20M in savings.)
When my daughter graduated from Catonsville High, county schools and our school system were ranked at the top. According to the new MSDE (MD State Department of Education) Public Schools Report Cards, our elementary, middle and high schools are not meeting goals in many categories. The current deplorable state of too many County school facilities is well known. Recognizing that investments in our children are investments in our future, the County Executive’s 2020 Budget makes significant moves in the right direction, considering the real fiscal constraints and the disappointing failure of the MD Senate leadership to act on the House-passed Build to Read Act.
The Community College of Baltimore County is appropriately recognized as a linchpin to economic opportunity in the County Budget Message. Between 2010 and 2017, and doing the most possible with limited resources, CCBC graduated 400 engineers, 500 teachers, 3,000 law enforcement officers, 2300 nurses, and 1400 business professionals. They need and deserve your support of their modest budget increase and the capital funds needed to complete the Carol Eustis Center for Health Professionals. Leveraging all our anchor institutions to foster business development holds great promise for the County’s business climate and business growth. Additionally, an integrated tourism, arts and culture strategy will make those investments go further.
A number 2 ranking can be a good thing – but not when it is from being the county with second-highest number of overdose deaths in the state (367 in 2017). The health and safety of our communities and our young people must have a higher level of priority. And our public safety officers and first responders deserve our support. (An important step demonstrating that support was the administration’s resolution of the long-standing dispute with the police union.) The proposed 2020 Budget addresses all of these issues in measured but sustainable ways.
As the County Executive has noted, as former County Executive Kamenetz footnoted in his 2019 Budget (in a ‘Flyspeck 3’ font), and as has been stated by the Spending Affordability Committee for the last couple of years, the challenges we face of aligning expenditures with revenues are now extra-ordinary “because for far too long, the County has been under-investing in our public schools and in our other needs.” The near-maniacal fiscal conservatism of the past has become irresponsible and has undermined our quality of life. We must turn a new page, toward fiscal sustainability and responsible stewardship.
I submit that the proposed increase in the piggyback income tax – from 2.83 percent to 3.2 percent, the first increase since 1972 for goodness sake! – and the other proposed fees are not out of line and are necessary to move Baltimore County forward in a more sustainable way. The proposed revenue increases have been formulated to be progressive, not regressive. County commitments to current employees and to retirees are being honored in a new spirit of partnership.
For four years I prepared, presented, defended, and managed the budget of the MD Department of General Services: at the time, the DGS operating budget was $81.5M; the capital budget was $450M; and I was in responsible charge of procurement of more than $800M a year in goods and services for agencies throughout the state. For 6 ½ years as one of six Port Commissioners, I approved the operating and capital budgets the MD Port Administration submitted to the General Assembly and had oversight of the execution of those budgets. As an adjunct professor, I taught Public Budgeting and Finance at the University of Baltimore. So, I know that formulating this budget was not an easy task.
Now retired, my personal interest in the County’s budget derives first and foremost from my expectation that it can be a plan for a better and stronger Baltimore County. The proposed 2020 Budget is such a plan.
I thank the Baltimore County Council for passing the package of reforms introduced by County Executive Olszewski at the end of January, intended to improve transparency and accountability in county government and strengthen ethical standards. Now I ask them, after their review and deliberation, to approve the proposed 2020 Budget. Please contact your Council Representative and do the same.