Baltimore Co. budget grows 4.7% as Kamenetz unveils $1.9 billion plan

Kamenetz's $1.9B budget plan holds line on income, property taxes.

Baltimore County residents would see no increase in property or income tax rates under a $1.9 billion budget proposed Tuesday by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

The spending plan includes negotiated pay raises for county employees and public school teachers.

The operating budget represents a 4.7 percent increase over the current budget, fueled by what Kamenetz described as the county's growing tax base and an unemployment rate that has fallen from 8 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent now — factors "allowing us to maintain stable tax rates."

Along with the operating budget, the county would spend $375 million on capital projects such as construction of schools and other facilities.

Kamenetz's first budget since being re-elected in November is one of two released Tuesday by officials in Baltimore suburbs.

In Harford County, newly elected Republican County Executive Barry Glassman proposed a $642 million operating budget that would hold the line on tax rates and stall several capital projects. Glassman called the plan "a new path forward by restoring balance and fiscal responsibility."

In Baltimore County, more than half of the combined capital and operating budgets — about $1.6 billion — would go to schools. Along with teacher salary increases, the education funding includes $80 million for renovations and air conditioning at four of the county's oldest high schools: Dulaney, Lansdowne, Patapsco and Woodlawn.

Other school projects include construction of new Catonsville, Westowne and Relay elementary schools and an addition to Westchester Elementary; completion of Lyons Mill Elementary in Owings Mills, set to open in the fall; millions of dollars for new roofs at 10 schools; and money to design a new elementary in the county's northeast.

The school system reduced its request to the county after Kamenetz held private meetings with school board members. Superintendent Dallas Dance said he was pleased with the budget, though "there's always things we want to add."

"The county executive's budget goes a long way toward modernizing our high schools, but also [addresses] the elementary school growth that's happening over the next 10 years," Dance said.

"It is a good start," said Yara Cheikh, a parent who has advocated for school projects, particularly in the county's northern area. "Clearly, the four [high] schools will need more than $80 million."

Other initiatives in Baltimore County's budget include $600,000 to fund Police Department efforts to recruit minorities; $250,000 more in incentives to help staff medics at volunteer fire stations and $200,000 for new spay-neuter clinics on the east and west sides of the county.

The Baltimore County Council will conduct a budget hearing at 6 p.m. April 28 at the Historic Courthouse in Towson, and is expected to approve a final plan May 21.

The council can make cuts to Kamenetz's budget, but members cannot add money. Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said there doesn't initially appear to be much fat to trim.

"It's bare bones," Bevins said. "There's not much waste in the budget."

County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said the council will look for savings, but he said he's pleased to see no tax increase.

Under Kamenetz's proposal, homeowners would pay a property tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of assessed value, and 2.83 percent in local income taxes — those rates would continue a string of more than two decades without change.

However, residents will see water and sewer bills go up July 1, when a previously announced 15 percent rate increase goes into effect. At the same time, stormwater remediation fees will decrease by one-third.

About $102 million of the capital budget is funded through the county's surplus. As of July 2014, the county was sitting on about $360 million in unspent funds.

In his budget address, Kamenetz, a Democrat, defended holding onto the surplus, saying the county needs a cushion for emergencies and to appease financial rating agencies. Baltimore County has had a AAA bond rating for years, which equates to lower interest payments on bonds for construction projects.

Kamenetz's proposed budget would leave $207 million in surplus fund balance.

"Fund balances occur only because we are conservative in our budgeting process," Kamenetz said.

In Harford County, Glassman also described his budget as conservative, reflecting what he called a "new normal" — anticipating that tax revenues will grow by only about 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent annually.

Harford's budget includes salary increases for teachers and some county employees — including those in the sheriff's office, the state's attorney's office, the Circuit Court and libraries, but construction spending would be the smallest amount in a decade.

Early this year, Harford officials moved to eliminate the county's stormwater fee, derided by critics as a "rain tax." Glassman's budget includes $6 million toward remediation projects to meet state and federal requirements.

Harford's budget must be approved by the County Council by June 15.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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