Parents want school improvements; Kamenetz asks their help to kill unrelated tax break

BaltCo Executive pits landfill-area residents against Dulaney, Pikesville parents.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has adopted an unusual tactic in his fight to get a bill killed in the Maryland General Assembly this year.

In a letter sent to dozens of parents at Dulaney High School and Pikesville High School, Kamenetz asks the parents to help him oppose state legislation that would cut county taxes for homeowners on the other side of the county.

Kamenetz, a Democrat, suggests he won't be able to pay for projects the parents say the schools need if state lawmakers approve the tax break for residents who live near the Eastern Sanitary Landfill in White Marsh.

"How can we add money to renovate Dulaney and Pikesville High Schools if some legislators in Annapolis are giving special treatment to one neighborhood, and reducing the County's revenue stream?" he asked in the email to parents.

There were signs Wednesday that the move had backfired; it managed to anger almost everyone involved: the bill's sponsor, other state lawmakers, parents and the landfill neighbors.

"It's out of line," fumed Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican who represents the landfill neighbors and who introduced the bill. "He's using parents as political pawns."

Democratic Sen. Jim Brochin, who represents many families at Dulaney, said it was "hypocritical" of Kamenetz to threaten school projects over the landfill bill, given the much larger tax breaks the county has given to developers.

And Democratic Sen. Bobby Zirkin, whose district includes Pikesville, called Kamenetz's letter "really inappropriate."

Jennings said he's trying to help families who live near the 375-acre landfill, who have endured noise, dust and odors since the facility opened in the mid-1980s.

Residents fear the impacts will worsen now that the county has struck a deal to accept trash from Harford County at a transfer station to open next year.

"I think we deserve something," Dorothy Hennant, a 50-year resident.

"We were here first," said Hennant, vice president of the community association in Bowerman-Loreley Beach. "We were a well-established community before this thing came in with the promise of being gone in 20 years."

Still, Hennant said, Kamenetz was setting up an artificial battle between her community and parents at Dulaney and Pikesville. She said the executive was "playing dirty."

"I think this letter is obnoxious, really," she said. "You don't have to do things like this to win elections or to win a bill."

The legislation, which is scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, would let the county grant a property tax credit to as many as 104 homeowners living near the landfill.

The credits could cost the county $245,500 a year in revenue, according to legislative analysts. But the bill would require the county to offset the lost revenue by raising tipping fees, which totaled $1.5 million last year.

The legislation would leave it to the Baltimore County Council to decide whether to grant the credits.

Kamenetz called the tax break a "giveaway" by state lawmakers who don't have to worry about balancing the county's budget.

"It's inappropriate for the General Assembly to pass laws to chip away at the county's tax base," he said.

Pikesville High School is undergoing a nearly $45 million renovation. Parents have lobbied for the addition of items that were proposed but weren't included in the renovation plan.

Dulaney, meanwhile, suffers from several problems.

A new school would cost about $90 million, according to George Sarris, the school system's executive director of fiscal services. Parents say a complete renovation would cost $60 million to $65 million. Neither is on the table.

Addressing the "discolored water problem" there would cost about $5 million, Sarris said.

"Dulaney, in terms of renovation, is really not on the radar because the focus of the capital budget has shifted to [adding] capacity and air conditioning," he said.

Kamenetz defended his letter. Borrowing $5 million for either school project, he said, would cost the county about $250,000 per year in interest payments, Kamenetz said.

Jennifer Tarr, a member of Friends of Dulaney, said she's grateful the county executive has shown he cares about the school's needs. But she said she will not lobby her senators to kill the landfill tax break.

"I feel it shouldn't be a comparison about issues for neighborhoods," she said.

Tarr, the mother of a freshman at Dulaney, said the school has brown water, a termite infestation and pipes that burst.

Baltimore County had nearly $200 million in its unreserved fund balance and $85 million in a rainy day fund at the start of the fiscal year last summer. Kamenetz's chief of staff said the fund balance can be used for one-time expenses. Chief of staff Don Mohler said the fund balance could be tapped to pay for work at Dulaney and Pikesville.

Jennings said he introduced the tax credit bill after county officials did not respond to his request that they address residents' complaints about the landfill. Proponents note that the legislature voted years ago to authorize Harford County to grant tax credits to homeowners living near its landfill.

The Senate passed the Baltimore County tax credit in 2014, but it died in the House of Delegates after the county delegation voted not to endorse it. This year, the House delegation voted narrowly to endorse it.

Jennings said he told the county's lobbyist that he'd be willing to tweak the bill to minimize its impact on the county. Jennings said in a letter to Kamenetz that the executive blindsided him by asking school parents to lobby his colleagues.

"Fair minded people can legitimately disagree," Jennings wrote, "but shameless political stunts like this are below the behavior the people of Baltimore County expect from their elected officials."

Yara Cheikh, a parent advocate in Baltimore County who got the letter, said the county should be able to find a way to fund needed school projects.

"Families across the county are more interested in advocating for school construction funds," she said. "With such a large surplus and some of our schools — like Dulaney High School — at crisis point, we have to wonder is it time to dip into the surplus and pay for renovation and air conditioning."

Brochin said he's received "tons of emails" from upset parents, but hasn't decided how he'll vote on the tax break.

He contrasted Kamenetz's opposition to the landfill tax break with a $265,000 county loan to the owners of the Greene Turtle so they could expand the restaurant in Towson. A portion of that loan would be forgiven if the business hired a certain number of employees and completed renovations to the building.

"I think when you're county executive and you've given tax breaks to multimillionaire developers to the tune of tens of millions of dollars," Brochin said, "I think it takes a lot of audacity to take on a senator trying to get a small tax break for people who live next to a garbage dump when it was promised that that dump would close."

Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, another county Democrat, said she hadn't seen Kamenetz's letter and hadn't heard from any parents. She said she understood some of the executive's concerns about the tax break, but was disappointed by the dispute.

"I just wish they could've worked something out instead of jumping the gun," she said.

pwood@baltsun.com

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°