Baltimore County Council approves $1.6 billion budget

Baltimore County Council members gave unanimous approval to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's $1.6 billion budget Thursday, having agreed to only minor spending cuts last week.

The council voted last week to cut the budget by about $258,200 — a fraction of the $1.5 million recommended by the county auditor.

Kamenetz trimmed dozens of jobs and pulled $61 million from reserves — nearly six times the amount used last year — to balance the budget, leaving property and income tax rates unchanged. The budget increased less than 1 percent over last year's plan. The county has approximately $150 million in reserves, about 10 percent of the total budget.

The Fire Department would have faced a $700,000 hit under the auditor's recommendations — the largest recommended cut. Several agencies and departments and the school system did not face any cuts.

Declines in state aid have hit the county hard in recent years. This year, the state shifted $6.6 million in administrative costs to localities. Local officials are bracing for the prospect next year of additional cost shifts, particularly teacher pension expenses.

When he introduced the budget last month, Kamenetz said that throughout his 17 years in local government, the county has never faced declining revenues. More than 180 vacant county jobs have been cut since December, bringing the employee rolls down to the lowest number in 25 years.

The county is in the final year of an agreement with unions to forgo cost-of-living increases in exchange for job security.

However, the budget does include longevity increases for employees and teachers.

"This was not an easy budget to prepare and council members embraced the principles of innovation, consolidation and efficiency," Kamenetz said after the vote. "With a looming state deficit of more than $1 billion, there are stormy seas ahead for every local government."

Kamenetz and council members have also urged school Superintendent Joe A. Hairston to find ways to restore 196 vacant teaching positions. Hairston said he would consider keeping some if money becomes available.

At Thursday's meeting, Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., an Edgmere Democrat, reiterated a desire to see the schools' administrative staff share the economic burdens.

"We are certain that there are reductions that can and should be made in the department's budget, and we appreciate the superintendent's commitment to us that he will consider using any cost savings ... for teachers, equipment, books and supplies," he said.

The council also endorsed Kamenetz's technological initiatives and the work done by county public safety agencies.

"In tough economic times, we want to make sure that we protect public safety, the education system and try to do things that will help create jobs and get this economy moving again," Olszewski said.

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