Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz unveiled a $3.3 billion budget plan Thursday that holds the line on county tax rates and puts a controversial decision on new high school construction in the hands of the school board.
Parents have been clamoring for replacement schools for Dulaney High in Timonium, Lansdowne High and Towson High, and there's been a back-and-forth in recent years over which schools will be replaced and which might be renovated instead.
Kamenetz, a Democrat, is in his final year year as county executive due to term limits, and is running for governor. In his eighth and final budget proposal, he included $30 million for planning studies to build two new high schools — but did not specify which schools would receive the money, leaving that up to the school system.
He made no mention of the high school projects Thursday in his 40-minute "state of the county" speech to the Baltimore County Council, though he spoke generally about his record of school construction as county executive.
Councilman Wade Kach, who wants Dulaney High School in his district replaced, said it might be a good idea to let the school board decide which projects come first.
"I would rather see specific money for all three of the schools," said Kach, a Cockeysville Republican. "But in order to avoid any kind of contention with that issue, to have the school board make that decision, I think that's a pretty good compromise."
Other council members said even more difficult decisions about school construction will fall to the next set of county politicians.
"I'm pleased that we're not raising taxes, but we need to have discussions about how to fund these schools," said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who has Towson High in his district. "That's going to be a discussion mainly for the next county executive."
"Planning money is one thing, but paying for them is a whole different issue," said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat who represents the Lansdowne High area. "It's going to be up to the next county executive and the next county council to figure out how we are going to maintain these promises and pay for them."
A replacement high school generally costs at least $100 million.
As expected, Kamenetz's budget would continue a streak of more than two decades in Baltimore County without any increases in local tax rates.
The property tax rate is $1.10 per $100 of assessed value, meaning owners of a home valued at $300,000 would pay $3,300 in property taxes. The county income tax rate is 2.83 percent.
The main part of the budget, known as the general fund, is about $2 billion. When state aid, federal aid and water and sewer payments are added to the county's general fund, the total county budget is nearly $3.3 billion.
Kamenetz announced a few details of his budget in advance of Thursday's unveiling, including an increase in spending on grants to arts institutions, a "college promise" program that would spend about $1 million to help low-income students pay community college tuition and $8 million to hire additional police officers, counselors, social workers and other staff for public schools.
The budget plan includes a 3 percent salary increase for county employees, including teachers, that takes effect next January.
It also includes a 5 percent increase for the county's homeless shelters, a more than 7 percent increase in aid to volunteer fire companies and a 10 percent increase in assistance to the Maryland Food Bank. A dozen neighborhoods will be added to the rat eradication program.
Some county officials have cautioned that the county may be close to overextending itself in borrowing money to pay for projects such as renovating and replacing schools, while it is not saving enough money for retiree health care or emergencies.
The county maintains AAA bond ratings — similar to a top credit score for an individual — but its Spending Affordability Committee recently warned that if spending patterns don't change, the county might face spending cuts or tax increases in the future.
Kamenetz said his budget is within the guidelines set by the committee.
The county executive used most of his speech to reflect on his nearly eight years as county executive and 16 years before that as a member of the county council.
He highlighted what he believes are some of his top accomplishments in two terms as executive, including outfitting police patrol officers with body cameras, building a new animal shelter, increasing diversity within the police and fire departments, reworking job-training programs, and renovating and replacing aging schools.
He also touted new developments that have moved forward in recent years, such as the revitalization of the old Sparrows Point steel mill into Tradepoint Atlantic, new apartments and restaurants in Towson, and, in Owings Mills, the Foundry Row shopping center and the Metro Centre mixed-use project. He praised corporations that have relocated or expanded in the county, including McCormick & Co., Under Armour, Amazon and Stanley Black & Decker.
Kamenetz drew chuckles from the crowd in the council chambers when he reflected on his start in county government "as a young council member in my 30s: single, no kids, a full head of hair and a bushy mustache.
"Today, I'm married and the father of two teenage boys with thinning hair. I grew the mustache to look older, and I shaved it to look younger."
Kamenetz called it "an absolute honor and privilege" to serve Baltimore County's more than 830,000 residents.
He declined interview requests about the budget following the presentation.
County council members will spend much of April and May scrutinizing the details of the budget in talks with Kamenetz's department directors. Council members have the authority to cut from the budget, but they cannot add to it or move money around. Last year, the council approved Kamenetz's budget with no changes.
The council will hold a public hearing on the budget at 6 p.m. on May 1 at the Historic Courthouse, 400 Washington Ave. in Towson.
BUDGET AT A GLANCE
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed a nearly $3.3 billion budget Thursday that will guide the county's spending for the 12 months that begin July 1. Highlights include:
- Keeping the property tax rate at $1.10 per $100 of assessed value and the income tax rate at 2.83 percent.
- Spending $8 million to hire more police officers, guidance counselors, social workers and other support staff for public schools.
- A 3 percent salary increase for county workers, including teachers, beginning in January.
- Allocating $30 million in planning money for high school construction projects, with the school board deciding which schools will receive the money.
- Increasing the rat eradication budget by $1.8 million to add 12 neighborhoods.
- Increasing support for arts institutions, homeless shelters, volunteer firefighters and the Maryland Food Bank.