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FY21 Budget Message

Introduction

Council Chairwoman Bevins, members of the County Council, and all residents of Baltimore County:

Thank you for tuning in this morning for Baltimore County’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Message, which is being presented at an extraordinary moment in time.

This may be the first time in Baltimore County’s history that a County Executive has not delivered this message in person and in the County Council chambers.

To that end, I want to thank the members of the County Council for their flexibility. But more important, I want to thank them for their partnership—in both good times and now in times of crisis. I’ve served in this role for 16 months, but in that short time, I’m proud of the bipartisan relationships we’ve built—and the tremendous progress we’ve realized—together. We all serve because we love our neighbors and our communities and we want a local government that meets their needs. We’ve all come together and rallied to focus on the nearly 850,000 people we collectively serve. I’m grateful to have each of you as partners.

From the beginning, transparency has been one of my guiding principles. My administration has worked hard in this space and is now shining a brighter light on County government. Last year, we launched an open budget platform, so that residents can see for themselves exactly how we’re spending their money. We created a data-driven performance management program to hold ourselves accountable; and in the process, we’ve made more data available than ever before. We’ve also made a concerted effort to engage the community in everything from code enforcement reform to equitable policing. And we’ve provided you, our residents, with an opportunity to have your voices heard—with thousands of people attending our in-person budget town halls over the last two years, and 1,500 more tuning in last week for our first virtual budget town hall.

Honoring a commitment to transparency demands being honest with the people we serve. And in that spirit, I want you to know that the budget I’m presenting today is not the one I envisioned just a few weeks ago.

Unchartered Territory

The COVID-19 virus has upended everything that we had all taken for granted as normal, leaving us in uncharted territory. Our schools are closed—leaving more than 115,000 of our students at home. More than 9,600 of Baltimore County’s dedicated teachers are adapting to distance-learning, many of them doing so while also caring for their own children. A majority of our 22,000 businesses are shut down or their revenues are significantly reduced. Neighbors in every one of our communities don’t know where or when they’ll get their next paycheck—and more than 37,000 of our fellow residents have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. People are sick and some are dying. And we don’t know how long this pandemic will go on, or exactly what the long-term impacts will be.

In Baltimore County, we have responded to this crisis swiftly and decisively. I issued an executive order several weeks ago declaring a local State of Emergency. We promptly closed our senior centers, libraries and recreational facilities, and we’ve restricted public access to County buildings. We joined the state in prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people and have taken steps to ensure social distancing.

We established a hotline for residents, and staff have, to date, responded to nearly 5,000 calls. We’re providing meal and grocery distribution to help residents facing food insecurity, giving away tens of thousands of meals each and every week. We suspended evictions and water shut offs and we established an emergency fund that can accept outside contributions to support our ongoing efforts to respond to this evolving crisis. Our first responders, public health workers and other essential personnel are receiving extra pay in recognition of the critical role they’re playing in keeping us safe and healthy.

Together, the actions we are taking are reducing the spread of a deadly virus and they are saving the lives of our friends, neighbors and loved ones. They are saving the lives of perfect strangers too. 

I especially want to thank Dr. Gregory Branch, our Health Officer and Director of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Della Leister, our Deputy Health Officer—who are working around the clock to lead our local public health response. I am grateful for their leadership and guidance.

By now, it’s become clear that we have needed to largely put aside the everyday business of Baltimore County to focus instead on protecting our residents in response to this unprecedented crisis. I know this is hard, but we will get through this—and we will get through this together.

And yet, even as we weather this storm together, we must also prepare for its aftermath.

Focusing on the Basics

Experts agree that aftermath will include a steep economic decline, which will take an equally steep toll on our County’s residents and our County’s revenues.

The head of the International Monetary Fund said she anticipates “the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression.” The Director of the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment has said that “we’re definitely headed to something much deeper than the Great Recession and comparable to the Great Depression in depth. What we don’t know yet is whether we’ll be able to bounce back quickly or whether it will linger on for a decade or more.”

There is good reason for this concern. Consider that during the Great Recession, it took 38 weeks for initial unemployment claims to reach their peak in Maryland. We have passed that peak just three weeks into this ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

During our budgeting process, it became clear that the February revenue estimates from both our Office of Budget and Finance as well as the Spending Affordability Committee no longer applied.

No one could have known then what an immense economic challenge we would face.

As a result, our Office of Budget and Finance updated their projection at the beginning of April, estimating that our revenues will be $40 million lower in Fiscal Year 2021 than previously estimated.

Given both the rapidly changing nature and severity of the economic decline ahead, it is reasonable to expect another revenue write-down before the County Council completes its work on this budget. It is also reasonable to expect that mid-year adjustments to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget will be necessary as we better understand the depth of the crisis.

While we are grateful for the money being made available from the federal government for direct COVID-related expenses, such support only helps prevent additional budgetary burdens related to our response effort. We are hopeful, but have no guarantee, that the federal government will also provide direct budget relief to local governments to help mitigate our growing budgetary challenges. However, even if this support materializes, it remains to be seen when those dollars will be available and what strings might be attached.

In the meantime, we should make no mistake: our circumstances are challenging and the longer this pandemic continues, the longer it takes for economic stabilization to begin. 

I would like nothing more than to present you with a budget that responds to all of the needs and desires of our communities. We were intentional in our outreach to understand these needs, holding four in-person budget town hall meetings and releasing a budget priority survey before the pandemic hit. During this process, we heard calls for more funding for land preservation and pleas for turf fields. We were asked for more transportation options, recreational opportunities and resurfaced roads. And we all want new, modern school buildings—and more educators to staff them. We want expanded recycling and composting, and all the other things that boost quality of life and build a "Better Baltimore County" for the future.

But in the blink of an eye, this pandemic has created a new reality. And in this new reality, there’s not much room for extras.

This means that there are many additional people, like teachers, that we will not be able to hire. It means there are other important programs and initiatives that will need to be deferred or reconsidered. It also means we must forego funding tens of millions of dollars in capital pay-as-you-go priorities: more field space, turf fields and other recreational opportunities; more significant progress in updating our senior centers; robust street paving; and major flood mitigation projects, just to name a few. The budget I am submitting is more than $8 million below the guidelines set forth by the Spending Affordability Committee. It also holds back nearly $6 million in additional money below our most recent revenue projection, allowing the County to maintain a rainy day fund balance of 10.3 percent—a fund that we may need to help our recovery should some of the worst-case scenarios materialize.  

These changes make Baltimore County’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget one that spends about $46 million less than we planned, as recently as a month ago, to support operational and pay-as-you-go capital expenditures. 

It means this is a budget that focuses on the basics:

  • Educating our children
  • Keeping our neighborhoods safe
  • Supporting the County’s workforce, our most valuable resource; so we can continue providing the essential services that residents expect and deserve

These are the fundamental priorities of any local government.

Education

Last year, I was proud to provide our public schools with record funding—one of the County’s largest increases ever that allowed us to hire more teachers, more counselors, more psychologists and other support staff, and to pay them more to better reflect the value of their dedicated work on behalf of our families.

This year, our focus is on holding steady to last year’s gains. The proposed budget is nearly $36 million more than what is provided for in the current fiscal year and is $20 million above maintenance of effort. It funds steps and increments as well as a one percent cost of living increase for our educators, effective July 1. It includes more than $1 million to hire additional school counselors and support staff to help address the mental, social and emotional health of our students. We know this crisis will impact our children in many ways and we want to ensure we have the resources in place to respond to their needs.

The proposed budget for our schools reflects a modest down payment on our contribution toward Baltimore County’s portion of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. While the funding formula does not require Baltimore County to contribute its local share for another seven years, the reforms it calls for are important, and we remain committed to making as much progress as we can, as soon as we can.

As we work to maintain our commitment to funding our classrooms, I know that the Maryland General Assembly—no doubt facing budget challenges of their own—will do all that they can to ensure the Blueprint’s promise becomes a reality. The truth of the matter is this—an expansion towards universal prekindergarten, more robust college and career readiness programming, and additional support for teachers and students alike will only happen with the state funding envisioned in the Blueprint.

Fortunately, I have a strong partner in Baltimore County’s new Superintendent, Dr. Darryl Williams. Dr. Williams has a clear vision for the future of our schools, a vision that very much aligns with my own. It’s a vision that supports the outstanding professionals in our schools while also providing additional supports to focused schools and groups of students who are most in need. I look forward to working closely with him to make that vision a reality in the years ahead.

I would have liked to provide BCPS with more of the resources they requested, to hire more teachers and invest more in our classrooms. But I know Dr. Williams understands, and I hope all of you do too, that this time of crisis requires difficult decisions. To avoid class size growth this year, and in light of the constraints this budget must acknowledge, I have encouraged the superintendent to place the 169 staff development teachers—formerly known as STAT teachers—directly into our classrooms to grow the ranks of our front-line teachers.

As we sustain our public schools system, we also continue our investment in higher education—knowing that in difficult economic times, access to job training and higher education becomes even more important. The proposed budget allows CCBC to freeze in-County tuition for the second year in a row and it provides funding that allows for a baseline continuation of the College Promise scholarship program.

On the schools capital side, we plan to continue making progress to address our significant facility needs. Three new elementary schools will open their doors this fall, and while we still expect to push shovels in the ground on most of the remaining Schools for Our Future projects, much will depend on what happens at the state level, where revenues are also in flux in response to the pandemic.

Specifically, we obtained a major win during this year’s state legislative session with the passage of the Built to Learn Act. Under that legislation, Maryland committed to making hundreds of millions of dollars available for the state match to Baltimore County’s school construction program, including $250 million to complete our Schools for the Future program, which were prefunded locally in prior fiscal years. However, the Built to Learn legislation relies on Maryland’s casino lockbox revenues in order to fund the state share of school construction. With casinos closed for an indefinite period of time during the pandemic, it remains uncertain how their closure will affect the timeline for school construction.

But to be clear, we will never take our eye off the ball—having taught in an old trailer for several years, I know firsthand how poor conditions impact learning. That is why I remain committed to finishing the Schools for Our Future Program as well as addressing our high school needs. We will continue to fight for what we need from the state to provide every community with modern, state-of-the-art school facilities.

Our residents expect and deserve a world-class education for every child and I will not rest until that expectation is our reality.

Public Safety

Our residents also expect and deserve to feel safe in their neighborhoods and communities. Baltimore County remains a safe place to live, work and raise a family. In 2019, most crime categories saw declines. There were fewer burglaries, fewer robberies, fewer motor vehicle thefts and fewer carjackings in 2019 compared to 2018. But last year’s increase in homicides was unacceptable and it required immediate action. In partnership with Police Chief Melissa Hyatt, we developed a comprehensive public safety plan to reduce crime and modernize our law enforcement efforts.

Some elements of that plan have already been implemented. Last year we joined with Baltimore City and federal partners in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and we continue to work with our partners in the city to address regional crime concerns. Chief Hyatt has embraced proven violence reduction strategies, and worked quickly to expand the number of patrol areas from two to three in order to more effectively focus resources. She also established a permanently assigned Night Commander position in order to provide more robust leadership and supervision at all hours.

Even as we see some encouraging results from these changes, we need to go further. This includes new, dedicated resources for our public safety efforts. Therefore, I am asking the County Council to approve a measure that will allow us to place enforcement cameras on our school buses. The cameras would enable us to more effectively catch drivers who continue to disregard the prohibition on passing stopped school buses and the revenue collected would provide funding for two other critical elements of our public safety plan. Specifically, we would leverage both existing and new funding to hire two new police squads to focus full-time on our targeted law enforcement strategy; and to stand up a real time crime center that will combine data, human intelligence and technology in order to more effectively deploy resources.

Our police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities and right now they’re out on our streets so that we can all stay home. Equipped with gloves and masks, they are, as always, answering the call to duty, and these proposed new resources will support their efforts, ensuring that they can effectively continue to protect and serve.

Standing by their sides are our firefighters and emergency medical personnel. These are our front line heroes. They are the ones who risk their own lives in order to save the lives of others, and they deserve our ongoing support. The proposed budget includes an additional $1 million to support our volunteer fire companies, as well as resources to begin the process of providing our career fire personnel with a second set of turnout gear.

Improving public safety must go beyond investing more resources in law enforcement. We also recognize that upstream investments provide our young people with the resources they need to succeed and help prevent crime in the first place.

Last year, we provided operating funds for two new PAL Centers, and our proposed capital budget includes funds to build permanent physical space for those new programs. PAL Centers offer a place of refuge for young people who might otherwise turn to the streets, and by investing in them now we are serving our collective future. It’s an area where we want—and need—to expand further in the future.

Supporting Our Workforce

Alongside our police officers, our firefighters, and our educators, the County workforce is the heartbeat of our government. They are the people who ensure our roads get paved, our trash gets collected, and our pipes carry our water in and out of our homes. They process our permit applications. They maintain our parks and open spaces. They oversee the restoration of our streams and plant trees to ensure we have clean air to breathe. They design plans for our County’s bright future. And, of course, they protect and promote public health.

We cannot provide residents with the essential services they expect and deserve without supporting our workforce. This budget does that by honoring the agreements negotiated with our labor unions. Under last year’s fully executed agreement, our workforce will receive a deferred two percent cost of living adjustment on June 30—a measure fully paid for in our proposed budget. We further honor the agreements we made in principle with labor organizations for the upcoming fiscal year, under negotiations finalized before the arrival of COVID-19. This would provide an additional two percent cost-of-living adjustment in the middle of the upcoming fiscal year.

We have made the difficult, but necessary, decision to freeze nonessential hiring, but we remain committed to investing in our employees and doing everything within our power to avoid furloughs or layoffs.

In addition to supporting the people providing our residents with critical services, we are also making investments to streamline and improve our delivery of service. Our 311 service is now up and running, and the proposed budget includes full funding for Fiscal Year 2021, ensuring our residents get direct access to a live person—and the assistance they need—anytime they dial 311.

An Eye Toward the Future

This pandemic has sent shockwaves through every facet of American life. It affects each of us in different ways, but each of us will be changed by it. And we will collectively grapple with the fallout for some time. But I make you this promise—while this crisis is forcing us to make difficult decisions in the short term, we will not waver from our long-term vision for a Better Baltimore County.

This proposed budget includes modest investments to ensure we can continue on our path.

I’ve proposed capital dollars for more park acquisition and a more equitable distribution of park and recreational infrastructur—because a Better Baltimore County has more open space and has greater access to recreational opportunities for everyone, regardless of their ZIP code.

I’ve proposed an expansion of employer-driven workforce strategies—because a Better Baltimore County provides job training services that meet the needs of both our residents and our businesses.

I’ve proposed funds that will allow us to reap the benefits of the $1.6 million federal grant we won to continue planning a circulator route—because a Better Baltimore County has greater access to transit so that more people can more easily move around.

I’ve proposed funds to resume recycling glass—something put to the wayside by the prior administration—because a Better Baltimore County is one where sustainability and the future of our planet is a priority.

While today we face unprecedented challenges, I feel confident in Baltimore County’s ability to weather this storm. In just one year, we’ve taken significant steps to increase transparency and accountability in County government—steps that will help us keep our government running smoothly, especially in this time of uncertainty:

  • We created an Office of Ethics and Accountability to help root out waste, fraud and abuse. The budget includes a modest increase to support the Office’s work, which has become all the more critical.
  • We launched BCStat—our first data-driven performance management program that improves our ability to assess our performance and quickly respond to needs and challenges.
  • Our office of Government Reform and Strategic Initiatives continues to conduct program reviews to help us operate more efficiently and effectively.
  • My proposed budget includes funds to create an Audit Compliance Unit, which will ensure that audit findings don’t just sit in a drawer, but rather provide a roadmap to improve operations. This unit will also help us track tens of millions of dollars in COVID-related expenditures, helping to ensure that we maximize our ability to be reimbursed by the federal government.

These steps are fundamental to effective, efficient government operations, even in good times—but they’re especially critical in these challenging times. The groundwork we’ve laid for a more accountable government will serve us well as we look to find additional efficiencies and improvements, allowing for a continued focus on the basics.

Conclusion

Baltimore County, this is not the budget I hoped to present to you this year. But it’s the budget that meets the moment.

Today, we’re focused on responding to an immediate and evolving crisis. We’re focused on making sure our first responders and public health workers have the personal protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely. We’re focused on making sure every resident has enough to eat. We’re focused on ensuring we have the health and hospital capacity to respond when the number of cases spikes. We’re focused on weathering this storm, together.

As part of our response to the crisis, we are also planning for the recovery. We are focused on making sure our businesses can access the resources they need to sustain. We are focused on helping our residents find new jobs. We are focused on making sure we are prepared for when this virus returns or when the next one arrives.

And we will also stay focused on the long-term vision for a Better Baltimore County. One with world-class schools and vibrant, diverse communities. One with safe neighborhoods, more recreational opportunities and a thriving economy. One where every resident is proud to call home.

We will get through this, together, and we will thrive, together.

Thank you.

Contact Us

Office of the County Executive

400 Washington Avenue
Mezzanine Level
Towson, Maryland 21204

Hours

Monday through Friday
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Phone

Fax

410-832-8496

County Executive

John A. Olszewski, Jr.

 
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