Baltimore County's balancing act

In Baltimore County, like much of Maryland, tax revenues have flat-lined. State aid for such things as road resurfacing is not much better. County workers won't be receiving cost-of-living increases for the fifth year in a row.

Yet amid all this austerity, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz last week proposed a budget that finances new schools and retrofits many others with air conditioning. There are millions of dollars for new school security systems, for a new family resource center on the east side of the county and for new technology for police.

All of it has been made possible without increasing either the county's piggyback on the state income tax or the property tax rate, which has now been frozen for a quarter-century. And this in an aging county with inside-the-Beltway urban issues — without the benefit of incorporated towns or cities to share the burden and without some of the nuisance fees for trash collection, fire coverage or medic service that some other local governments have adopted.

Give Mr. Kamenetz and his administration a green eyeshade for accounting acumen. Once again, Baltimore County is demonstrating how it's possible to both trim and expand local government simultaneously to focus resources where they are needed and not just where they have always been spent.

How did Mr. Kamenetz do it? It's not magic but a focus on cost-effectiveness and efficiency that seems to be at work. Like his last two predecessors, Mr. Kamenetz has attempted to reduce the number of county workers through attrition and invest in technology. He's met at least one of those goals, as the county's general government workforce is approaching a 25-year low.

Technology has clearly been part of the equation, too. Two years ago, he invested money to reduce the number of in-service training days for police officers from three to two, making up the difference with flexible online training. The system cost $500,000, but the county now saves $500,000 annually in overtime.

Examples like that are becoming commonplace. This year, he's investing in technology that will allow police officers to file digital reports from crime scenes. That will free 15 employees who used to handle the paperwork for other duties.

These kinds of incremental improvements gradually add up. And when they do, the county is more inclined to spend the savings on one-time capital projects rather than hiring workers whose presence will expand the operating budget in future years. That's how the county can afford to address school overcrowding with 3,000 new seats in the York Road corridor and in Owings Mills and Catonsville.

As Mr. Kamenetz has observed, the uproar over a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel seems absurd given that the county needs to build that one and another — most likely inside the Beltway — to meet projected enrollment needs. And school construction is unlikely to end there, as generational turnover seems to be causing more young families to move into older county neighborhoods.

That can be a challenge, given that most Baltimore County schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s. But not if the county sticks to the level of investment Mr. Kamenetz has proposed for the coming year. With his latest budget plan, the number of schools without air conditioning will fall from 52 percent in 2010 to 27 percent.

The budget also appears to reflect a much-improved relationship with the school system since Superintendent Dallas Dance came on board last year. There's funding for several of Mr. Dance's priorities, including school security and wireless connectivity in the classroom. Soon, every county high school will have wi-fi, and all students will come and go using a swipe card to track their whereabouts under the budget plan.

Obviously, there are limits to how much blood can be squeezed out of this particular turnip. County employees were willing to go without COLAs in recent years in return for job security and guaranteed pensions and health benefits. And lowered property tax assessments of recent years may soon reduce tax revenue instead of merely keeping it flat. Moreover, overcrowding and the lack of air conditioning are far from the only expensive problems the county's stock of aging schools poses. There may come a point when it will take more than penny pinching to accommodate the county's needs.

But for now, Mr. Kamenetz deserves some kudos for doing the kind of unglamorous work that chief executives are supposed to do — setting priorities and spending less where possible and more where necessary to meet those goals. That may not get him the headlines that others get for giving away bonuses to teachers or expanding government services, but in a county that prides itself on both fiscal conservatism and high-quality public schools, it's exactly what voters expect.

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