Balto. Co. Budget is Nearly Flat, Draws Down Reserve Money

… County Exec. Kamenetz releases first spending plan at State of the County address …

By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

10:03 AM EDT, April 14, 2011

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed Thursday to use a big chunk of the county’s reserves to balance a $1.6 billion spending plan for next fiscal year.

The proposed budget, released this morning, will not raise property or income tax rates. It maintains current services, and represents a less than 1 percent increase over last year’s plan. The current fiscal year ends June 30.

The budget includes nearly $61 million from the county’s reserves — about six times the amount that was used last year. Kamenetz is also asking Baltimore County Public Schools officials to re-examine spending on top-level administrators.

Kamenetz provided details to the Baltimore County Council this morning in his first State of the County address.

Kamenetz described the county’s reserves — approximately $150 million, about 10 percent of the county’s budget — as healthy, saying, “The good news is that’s why the money is there.”

Looking ahead to the 2013 fiscal year, however, Kamenetz said the county may not have seen the worst of it.

State aid could be cut midyear if revenues fall short and the county’s own declining revenues are not expected to recover by next year, he said.

Throughout his years in local government, “at no time have we had a scenario where we had declining revenues, and that’s the reality today,” Kamenetz said. “The number one priority for me is to ensure that we have no property tax increase or income tax increase.”

Kamenetz said he also wants to ensure that the county continues to deliver basic services, and to protect jobs and benefits for county employees.

The county’s fiscal prudence has paid off in the economic downturn, he said, allowing it to avoid layoffs, furloughs and service cuts. Though he praised reforms made four years ago to the pension system, he said that more work will be needed.

Earlier this week, in deflecting calls to restore about 200 teaching positions that will be cut through attrition, Kamenetz said the school system’s $667 million budget reflected the current economic realities. He said today that he wants Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to review budget priorities.

“In my conversations with education stakeholders, there appears to be a desire to reduce the level of non-classroom administrators and shift their responsibilities to classroom functions,” Kamenetz said. “I strongly encourage Dr. Hairston… to re-examine the administrative functions of [executive-level positions] to ensure that our students are best served.”

Hairston on Tuesday described efforts to keep spending in check by trimming his executive team and designing a budget that preserves teaching positions and programs.

Kamenetz said he is frustrated with the lack of oversight that county governments have regarding school systems’ budgets, and that he wants to continue discussions about possible changes to state law with the county delegation.

Kamenetz’s proposal would eliminate another 41 vacant county positions, bringing the number of jobs cut since December to 184. The cuts would bring the number of county employees to its lowest level in 25 years. These steps are necessary to ensure that workers are not subject to furloughs or layoffs in the upcoming year, he said.

The county is in the final year of an agreement with unions to forgo cost-of-living increases in exchange for job security.

Major capital projects are still on track, he said. The county will continue plans to bring library and community college branches, and retail options to Metro Centre in Owings Mills, and pursue economic development along Liberty Road to capitalize on Northwest Hospital.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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