Baltimore County OKs budget, but council is critical of school enrollment projections

No property or income tax hikes in Baltimore County's approved budget.

The Baltimore County Council adopted a $3.3 billion operating budget Thursday for the coming fiscal year, unanimously approving a spending plan that includes no increases in the property tax or income tax rates.

The budget approved Thursday changed little from the package proposed last month by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. The budget review process, however, exposed a slight rift between county government and the school system, which receives about half of the money in the budget.

County officials are frustrated that the system changed the way it makes long-term enrollment projections for schools without discussing the change with members of the County Council or Kamenetz.

Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins said if enrollment projections change, it could have a "ripple effect" on deciding when and where to pay for school construction projects. The county is in the midst of a $1.3 billion "Schools for Our Future" building initiative that aims to address overcrowding by 2021.

The county plans to hire a consultant to review the school system's enrollment projections. In her budget address Thursday, Bevins said the cost and effort of hiring that consultant wouldn't be necessary if the school system had been forthcoming about its changing methodology.

"This is both time and money that could be spent elsewhere if there had been a more timely flow of information from the Baltimore County Public Schools," said Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

"It is a cumbersome development, so we remind the public school system that it must communicate and cooperate with both branches of county government," she said.

School spokesman Mychael Dickerson said later the system has moved to an enrollment methodology officials believe will be more accurate.

Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, who was sitting in the front row for Bevins' speech, did not respond directly but later issued a statement saying: "We look forward to the continued positive partnership with the council and Baltimore County government, particularly as it relates to our enrollment projections."

Kamentez's spokesman, Don Mohler, said the county executive and the superintendent have a good relationship, and Kamenetz will ask the council to approve a contract of about $50,000 to review the enrollment projections.

"This is an effort to be cautious and make sure we're spending $1.3 billion in the right way," he said.

The county's operating budget includes $1.9 billion in general fund spending, with the rest of the money coming from state, federal and other sources. The general fund gets most of its money from property taxes — $1.10 per every $100 of assessed value — and local income taxes, at 2.83 percent. The property and income tax rates have remained unchanged for more than 20 years.

The council also approved a $375 million capital budget that will pay for construction projects such as schools, roads and parks.

The fiscal 2016 budget goes into effect July 1 and runs through June 30, 2016.

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