By Mary K. Tilghman
2:26 PM EST, January 15, 2013
After being elected by a unanimous vote on Jan. 7, 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk has quite a to-do list for 2013 in his first term as chairman of the Baltimore County Council.
"My goal in 2013 is to work closely and collaboratively with County Executive (Kevin) Kamenetz and also the council," Quirk said.
His list also includes:
• Collaborate and foster bi-partisanship
• Maintain the quality of basic, essential services
• Protect the environment and use land wisely
• Advocate for local businesses
A collegial spirit keeps the county council humming along, he said.
"We work very collaboratively," said Quirk, pointing out that party affiliation hasn't kept a bill from passage and that party lines don't separate the five Democrats and two Republicans on the council.
In fact, he said, he and Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the 5th District that includes Perry Hall and Towson, have co-sponsored a number of bills since they were both elected in 2010.
The new chairman is excited by his new responsibilities.
"I appreciate my colleagues' trust and support," he said.
He's held the gavel a few times before, including going back to his Youth in Government days in high school.
"It's an honor to be the chairman," he said.
Quirk said the county has remained fiscally strong, despite the weak economy. The county's credit is rated AAA by all three credit rating companies, one of only 28 counties in the United States with these high ratings.
"That speaks for itself," he said.
What's more, the county has an annual budget of $2.6 billion but has not raised income taxes in 20 years or the property tax rate in 24 years.
"We really are holding the line," he said, explaining the need to keep cutting expenses. "If the county is having trouble, the taxpayers aren't having it any easier."
But that doesn't mean county residents should expect to see essential services cut. Services such as education, police, firefighters, libraries, streets and other infrastructure must be maintained at the highest quality possible, he said.
Funding them, however, remains a challenge.
With the housing market remaining weak and property assessments dropping, as they have in southwest Baltimore County this year, revenues are expected to be down in 2013.
Funds that used to come from the state and federal sources have been cut and expenses the state used to cover have now been handed back to county governments.
"We have absorbed about as much as we can," Quirk said.
But, he said, the county has learned to stretch a buck.
"Baltimore County gets an A-plus for that. We have to do more obviously," Quirk said.
Goals for future
Quirk said stewardship of the county's land is a major priority for 2013.
Specifically, he said, he wants to continue to work to preserve open space around the county, use better planning practices and more environmentally friendly measures.
Quirk said he'd like to see a transformation from "a car culture to a people culture" by improving walkability and open space and making communities around the county places to live, work and play.
"Those are the communities that are going to prosper in the future," he said.
The Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, which was co-sponsored by Quirk and Marks and approved by the council in November, is one step toward reaching that goal.
Since Baltimore County is already so densely developed, redevelopment and revitalization are necessary to keep the county strong and vibrant, he said.
He said the county's proximity to Baltimore City adds to the challenges of county government, but also adds some positive aspects as well.
He said schools are seeing more diversity and an increase in the need for free and reduced-price meals, as well as increasing scores on achievement tests.
"Things are definitely changing," he said.
He pointed to several projects in southwest Baltimore County now in the works reflect that change.
In addition to the conversion of a building on Frederick Road into a medical office building, he cited the clean-up at Simkins Mill in Oella, the imminent development of a new senior residence facility in Baltimore Highlands and the expansion of the Catonsville Family Y on South Rolling Road and the near-completion of the $109 million Kaiser Permanente facility in Lansdowne.
"Lansdowne is the biggest success story in the last few years," he said.
Since the opening of Lansdowne Station on Washington Boulevard anchored by a Walmart several years ago, companies have been giving the area a second look, he said.
"There's great forward momentum in southwest Baltimore County," Quirk said. "People want to invest in the area."
A small business owner himself, Quirk believes it's vital to advocate for local businesses and serve as a liaison between government and companies doing business in the county.
"We don't want to be just a bedroom community and we don't want to be just a business community," he said. "We need a balance."
Finding that balance will be a personal challenge as well. While the issues in his 1st District will remain his first priority, so will spending time with his family that includes two young children.
He figures he spends about 25 hours a week on 1st District business and another 40 as a financial planner.
On a day that began with a breakfast meeting and included a lunch meeting and several client appointments, he was planning to get home in time for dinner.
It's all good, he said.
He has reason to be energized and optimistic for the county.
"I can see it happening. I think the trends are very positive," he said.