Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz ticked off the wins from the legislative session Monday, but he warned that losses could be substantial next year.
County officials and the local delegation went into the session with a nonpartisan, put-the-county-first philosophy, said Kamenetz, a Democrat and first-year county executive. He credited the strategy with his success in achieving his major legislative priorities — more state aid for schools and economic development.
The county will receive more than $6 million for capital improvements at Hampton Elementary School and $2 million for economic development along Liberty Road. Kamenetz said the county was not as successful in avoiding about $8 million in cost shifts for administrative fees in property assessments and pensions, and escalating costs for unemployment benefits.
"Considering we started the session with the threat of passing along all of the teacher pensions back to the local counties, I'll look at this $8 million bill that we're receiving collectively as a lot better than a $40 million bill," Kamenetz said.
However, he said this is the most challenging fiscal year that he's seen in his more than 16 years in local government.
"I fully anticipate that next year will be as bleak or worse than this year for Baltimore County," Kamenetz said, pointing to flat income and declining property tax revenues. "It requires a continuation of our efforts in Baltimore County to have a very lean budget and operate with the understanding that we are going to have to do better with less. But by and large, I view the session as a great win for Baltimore County."
Kamenetz will unveil his proposed budget on Thursday. Earlier this year, he eliminated vacant positions and merged departments in an effort to save money.
The county had received about $25 million for school renovations coming into the session. The funds for Hampton Elementary will allow the county to complete renovations by the fall of 2012, he said.
Officials hope to get state aid to supplant local funds for construction projects at Milford Mill Academy, and Sollers Point Technical and Parkville high schools.
"If we get some of our money back that we have forward-funded," Kamenetz said, "that will be the trifecta for school capital projects, and obviously we will be very pleased."
Going forward, county officials will seek to manage education costs more effectively, he said. A majority of the county's state aid goes toward the school system, whose budget totals about $1.6 billion.
Kamenetz is sticking to a school board decision to cut nearly 200 teaching jobs to save $15.8 million. He faces other gaps, including $9 million for school system health care.
Utilities, health care and higher school enrollment are placing pressure on the county, he said, adding that state aid amounts to a 1 percent increase over last year. "Our fixed costs have gone up more than 1 percent," he said. "I think [schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston] and the school board's budget reflected that reality."
Although the school board's budget will increase the number of students assigned to each teacher, the ratio still remains among the lowest in the state, Kamenetz said.
He said to keep the 200 teaching positions, the county would need $25 million. "More importantly, there's no guarantee we're going to have this money next year," he said.
And the county still isn't in the clear for the upcoming fiscal year, he warned.
If the state's anticipated 5 percent increase in income and sales tax revenues doesn't materialize, the county's aid could be cut midyear as it has in the last two years, he said.
"We're at the bottom of the food chain," Kamenetz said. "We can't pass those costs on below us."