We are living in unprecedented times that require decisive action. The COVID-19 public health crisis has disrupted everything from government, business, and our daily lives in unforeseen and painful ways.
It has caused much debate over “essential vs. non-essential”, a debate that certainly extends into this year’s County budget process. Faced with projected revenue shortfalls and required to formulate a balanced budget, the County must undergo the difficult endeavor of deciding what is essential and put off or eliminate what is deemed non-essential as well as determine not only what funding is required to meet its governmental obligations, but also what is best for our constituents facing hardships through no fault of their own.
This budget demands a more thoughtful and conservative approach than ever before, and when many “safety net” mechanisms have failed us, we must do what we can to provide financial relief to the hard-working people of Baltimore County.
On April 14, the County Executive submitted a budget that did not grant every agency their requested increase and limited capital project expenditures. Upon receipt of the proposed budget, the Council’s analysts found that the revenues projected by the Administration were $192 million more than their estimates, a significant difference.
After calls for a revised revenue projection by me and other Council members, the Administration submitted a new set of revenue projections on May 8. Still, a large gap between the Administration’s projections and our own exists. Historic budget cuts are on the table.
If implemented, these cuts will require shifting priorities and shuffling of resources as well as necessitate greater efficiencies, the abandonment of outdated and costly ways of conducting county business, and the abandoning political agendas that drove last year’s income tax and fee increases.
Despite my objections and No votes, the Council’s answer last year was to raise taxes and fees to mitigate what was marketed as a “budget deficit.” I saw a way to cut our way out of the hole and my proposals and votes would have cut $40 million and diminished the need to add to the tax burden of working people.
As challenging as it is, this budget is less a crisis and more of an opportunity to rework county government into one that works for the people, not against them. I am working with my staff, colleagues, and Council analysts to identify and propose $80 to $100 million in cuts this year in preparation for the May 14 budget deliberations and final vote.
Many of these cuts will be hard to swallow for some. “Pet programs” of suspect value must go as do bloated budgets of certain agencies. Last year’s budget expanded government by creating new departments (Sustainability, Diversity) that are redundant, expensive, and inherently political in nature.
Another example: BCPS received $32 million over the increase required by state law last year yet is carrying over millions of unspent money to support this year’s budget. Still, the ’21 proposed budget calls for another $20 million-plus over the state mandated increase. (BCPS will certainly be asked to justify this at their budget hearing on May 13.)
Every Council member is concerned and seemingly has their own ideas as each realizes cuts are necessary. I would urge my colleagues to look at this from another perspective, and that is of our constituents who have found little relief during this most difficult of times. A Property Tax rate reduction is in order, and I will propose and vote for it. Critics will say it is irresponsible to cut taxes when faced with revenue shortfalls, especially when staring into the unknown of how long it will take for the economy to rebound and how quickly we will recover. I look at it differently.
Households and small businesses are staring into the unknown as well. People are struggling with financial hardship, the uncertainty of potential joblessness, and how to manage all of this while programs like the state’s Unemployment Insurance system fails them.
While we examine government’s challenges, it is more important we look at our constituent’s challenges and act accordingly. Property Tax relief is a way to help, and the time is now.