www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-county/bs-md-co-budget-preview-20120312,0,6319009.story

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Baltimore Co. preparing for tough budget year

Capital projects may be delayed, but tax hikes not expected

By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

6:53 PM EDT, March 12, 2012

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Baltimore County is bracing for another tough budget year, delaying new construction and improvements to infrastructure while looking for other ways to save.

But County Council members and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration say they don't plan to raise taxes to bring in more revenue.

The county has not raised property taxes for 23 years, said Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler. Its income taxes haven't risen for 19. Kamenetz hopes to continue that run, Mohler said.

"It's getting harder and harder to do that, but it's clearly one of [Kamenetz's] objectives, and it's why he has worked hard since Day 1," Mohler said. "As we go forward, what you're going to see in Baltimore County is a laserlike focus on core services and an attempt to avoid laying off and furloughing public employees."

The county is looking over capital construction projects to see what can be postponed.

"We're in the process of reviewing that now with the Department of Public Works and talking with council members," Mohler said. "Everything is under review."

A county budget advisory panel has estimated that general fund revenues for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will be about $50 million less than this year. And it's not clear how much a proposed shift of teacher pension costs from the state to local governments could cost the county, Mohler said.

"So much of our budget is predicated on what happens in Annapolis," Mohler said.

Kamenetz is set to release his budget proposal April 12, three days after the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn.

The county's Spending Affordability Committee — meant to ensure that county spending doesn't exceed economic growth — wrapped up its work last month, recommending that the budget not top $1.64 billion. That would be an increase of $47.5 million over the current spending plan.

In the current fiscal year, estimated county revenues are covering budgeted expenditures, according to the Spending Affordability Committee's report, released in February.

But property tax revenue is expected to remain nearly flat — growing only 0.6 percent — in the coming budget year, the report says. Income tax revenue is projected to fall by nearly 11 percent.

The committee expects increases in revenue sources such as title transfer taxes and interest on investments. Overall, general fund revenues are projected to decrease about 3 percent, according to the report.

County Councilman Tom Quirk, chairman of the committee, said neither the county executive nor the council wants to raise taxes.

"But what that means is we're going to have to save money wherever we can," the Catonsville Democrat said. "We're going to have to cut costs wherever we can, where it's appropriate, where it's responsible."

Late last year, the County Council approved an early-retirement incentive program proposed by Kamenetz, in hopes of cutting the county workforce of 8,000 by at least 200. More than 650 employees applied.

The county has not released figures on how many employees were approved for the program. Employees had to retire by the end of February. Mohler said the county will release data on the retirements this month.

County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond said she's concerned about the institutional knowledge the county is losing because of so many retirements.

"I worry a little about history going out the door," the Reisterstown Democrat said. "I think we really need to keep a close eye on that."

The county has already cut down its workforce with consolidations, she said.

"And I think that's going to be a challenge in itself, to ensure that all of our departments respond as they should to our constituent issues," she said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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