County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said this week that a commitment to improving public education is a prominent aspect of his $2.69 billion operating budget for FY 2013, presented Thursday, April 12, to the County Council.
"When times are tough, we have to prioritize what are our core functions," Kamenetz said. "Our core functions are, for funding purposes, to focus on public education, public safety and maintenance of our infrastructure."
Chief among those commitments to the school system — which represent 52 percent of the county's budget — is a $149 million school bond referendum for, among other items, construction projects that will add a total of 1,100 elementary school seats within the overcrowded York Road corridor.
Kamenetz' budget includes full funding for the renovation of and a 200-seat addition to Stoneleigh Elementary, $18 million for a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel, $4.2 million for a 200-seat addition to Sparks Elementary, as well as funding for the completion of the Hampton Elementary addition.
Councilman David Marks, who represents the 5th District, including Towson, said the emphasis Kamenetz has placed on education in his first year will carry through the entire term of office.
"I applaud the county executive for supporting school construction in the Towson area, which desperately needs it," Marks said.
Cathi Forbes, president of Towson Families United, said after the speech that the systemic overcrowding problem could only be solved by adding more seats.
"There's nowhere to redistrict, there's nowhere to move anyone," she said. "But this will go a long way to solving that."
The budget also includes $34 million for an addition and renovation to Hereford High and another $18.5 million for an elementary school in the northwest area of the county, Kamenetz said.
The state has committed $42 million for school construction projects, he said, up $10 million from 2012.
The school referendum also includes $32.5 million to fund air-conditioning in 10 county schools: Catonsville Elementary, Fort Garrison Elementary, Sudbrook Middle Magnet, Timonium Elementary, Franklin Elementary, Hebbville Elementary, Woodmoor Elementary, Middleborough Elementary and Sussex Elementary.
"When I took office 17 months ago, more than half of our schools did not have air conditioning," Kamenetz said. "We are adopting a systemic approach to resolve this issue, which again continues to be fully dependent on our management of resources in a fiscally prudent manner."
Air conditioning will also be added to Stoneleigh Elementary and Hereford High as part of the renovations and could be installed in the other 10 schools in the summer of 2013, Kamenetz said.
With those improvements, only 36 percent of the county's 164 schools will be without air conditioning, he said.
"We're going to continue this steady process with each referendum until all schools are air-conditioned," Kamenetz said.
Maintaining tax rates
The budget also includes $20 million for road resurfacing in each of the next two years, $13 million for the fire department to purchase a new breathing apparatus, 21 medic units and two ladder trucks, and $26 million for Department of Public Works equipment.
"Frankly, it would be nice to tell you that the most difficult times are behind us, but that is simply not true," Kamenetz said.
"In order to avoid raising tax rates upon those we represent, we must continue to make tough decisions to deliver upon our obligation to our county's 805,000 residents," he said.
Under Kamenetz's budget proposal, the county's property tax rate would remain level for the 24th straight year — at $1.10 per every $100 of assessed value — and income taxes would not be raised for the 20th straight year.
Councilman Todd Huff, who represents the 3rd District, including Cockeysville, said he was "really impressed" by the work of the county executive and his staff regarding the budget package.
Tom Quirk, the 1st District councilman who represents Catonsville and Arbutus, said the priorities on education, public safety and basic infrastructure are "exactly where they should be."
"These are clearly tough economic times, so this is going to be a lean budget but a fiscally responsible budget," Quirk said. "In Baltimore County, we are truly doing a lot more with less."
The total budget is 2.8 percent higher than that from fiscal year 2012, but excluding the anticipated $15.7 million teacher pension costs the county anticipates being responsible for from the state and an extra $20 million in Other Post Employee Benefits that the county is paying "as a down payment on future obligations," the county's base spending would decrease by $3 million from last year.
Savings in personnel cuts
Some of those savings can be attributed to personnel cuts.
While 124 teaching positions are to be added by county schools, 50 non-classroom positions were eliminated for the budget.
Additionally, Kamenetz said the county has negotiated reduced health care and retirement costs in labor agreements and was able to greatly reduce the county work force in last year's voluntary buyout program — for which the county planned to eliminate 200 positions, but ultimately cut 310.
"We were hoping to save $14 or $15 million and seek 200 people to, in an evaluative and humane process, determine where could we downsize without impacting county services," Kamenetz said.
"We have approved 310 employees for this early retirement incentive and we anticipate a savings of $21 million annually," he said.
Kamenetz also said the county has undertaken 24 technology initiatives that make us more productive and save taxpayer dollars, with another $5 million budgeted to fund 14 more technological initiatives.
This story has been updated.