Kamenetz budget plan near $2 billion, calls for no tax rate increase

Baltimore County budget: No tax increases.

Baltimore County residents' taxes won't increase under a nearly $2 billion budget unveiled Thursday by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The proposed spending plan — in which Democrats and Republicans found little fault —continues to chip away at a long list of school construction needs.

"This budget is a reflection of our understanding of what it takes to grow jobs, maintain businesses and create new ones," Kamenetz said in a 35-minute speech delivered to County Council members and county officials.

With Baltimore County continuing its slow recovery from the recession — property values are increasing and unemployment is decreasing — Kamenetz, a Democrat, was able to continue a streak of more than 20 years without raising property or income tax rates.

More than half of the county budget money goes to the public schools. When state aid, federal aid, and water and sewer payments are added in, the total county budget is about $3.4 billion.

"It sounds like it is a solid, strong budget," said Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat from Reisterstown.

Council members will scrutinize the budget over the next month, although they are limited in what they can change. A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 26 at the Historic Courthouse in Towson.

Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County's school system, was pleased with the amount of education funding that Kamenetz put into the budget.

It includes money to hire 130 teachers and continue the renovation and replacement of old schools, including adding central air conditioning. Under the county executive's proposal, all schools would have air conditioning by 2019.

"In the future, trailers and hot classrooms will be a thing of the past," Kamenetz said.

Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, was pleased to see that three school buildings in his district — Dundalk, Colgate and Berkshire elementaries — are now in line to be replaced. For years, he said the southeastern part of the county "lagged behind" other parts in school construction.

"It's been something parents have been advocating for and I have been fighting for," Crandell said.

Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said he's glad that the budget includes enough money to finish installing air conditioning in all of the schools in his district, which stretches from Towson to White Marsh, and also starts the process for building two new elementary schools.

Other highlights of the budget include:

•$500,000 to buy e-readers and tablets for public libraries.

•$3 million in grants to arts and cultural institutions in Baltimore City.

•$3 million to build affordable housing, a requirement of a housing discrimination settlement reached this year.

•$2.7 million to improve sports fields, including installing artificial turf fields at Sparrows Point High School and Milford Mill Academy

•A 2 percent cost-of-living increase for most county workers

Tax rates have remained unchanged for more than 20 years, in part because county residents' incomes have increased and their homes have appreciated in value.

The property tax rate is $1.10 per $100 of a property's assessed value, meaning the property taxes on a home worth $300,000 would be $3,300.

The local income tax rate is 2.83 percent.

The county will finish the year with a projected surplus of $230 million, with about $100 million of that in the required rainy-day fund. The surplus will be slightly down from this year's surplus of nearly $250 million.

Kamenetz said the surplus is necessary to satisfy agencies that grade the county's bonds, which are issued to finance construction projects. Baltimore County has AAA ratings, in part because of the money cushion the county keeps, he said.

"We know we are fiscally responsible in Baltimore County, and the experts have told us that we are fiscally responsible," Kamenetz said.

While the property and income tax rates will remain flat, residents' water and sewer bills will be going up by 12 percent under a rate increase announced last month. The county estimates that a family of four will pay about $130 more per year. That money goes into the Metropolitan District, a joint city-county agency that operates the region's water and sewer system.

The council is scheduled to adopt the budget at the end of May, and it would take effect for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

pwood@baltsun.com

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