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Pragmatic Baltimore County

For a lawyer, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz sounds an awful lot like an accountant these days. Presenting the first budget of his term as county executive to the Baltimore County Council last week, he spoke not of a grand vision but of rising fuel costs and savings from automated court reporters, details usually reserved strictly for the CPA crowd.

Granted, that's the reality these days for all of Maryland's county executives and other local leaders struggling just to limp along with tax receipts that have not recovered from the economic recession. If Mr. Kamenetz is tempted to engage in self-pity, he ought to make himself a Facebook friend to fellow County Executive John R. Leopold who has proposed a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate in Anne Arundel, a county with a reputation for being even more averse to tax hikes than Baltimore.

The CliffsNotes version of Mr. Kamenetz's address would go something like this: No increase in the income or property tax rates. Smallest government workforce in 25 years, despite county's largest population ever. Have a nice day.

And while the county executive's immediate predecessors, James T. Smith Jr. and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, could get wrapped up in bragging about their frugality as well, they generally used their budget addresses to trot out favorite programs, too — new strategies to redevelop poor neighborhoods, for instance, or to take advantage of economic development opportunities from the Base Realignment and Closing process (BRAC).

By contrast, Mr. Kamenetz's dominant theme is to avoid reducing "core services" — although he also acknowledges that the Baltimore County school system will have to increase class sizes, as he doesn't have the money to save the 196 teaching positions recently cut by the county school board. (He mildly suggested the school system cut administrators instead.)

This is not a knock on the county executive's choices. His decision to tap $60.8 million from the county's reserve funds is perfectly sensible given that the county continues to enjoy an elite Triple-A bonding rating and still maintains a robust "rainy day" cash account in case the economy takes another sudden dive.

Nor is this necessarily the time to raise taxes — unless essential services are truly threatened. Baltimore County has managed its financial obligations better than most jurisdictions (perhaps better than any) in the state by limiting government growth even when the real estate market was bubbling along and times were good for tax collectors.

It has also been helpful that the county limited growth in property tax assessments to no more than 4 percent per year, thus cushioning the blow of the 2008 crash and the accompanying drop in real estate prices (upon which property taxes are based).

But if the focus in Baltimore County in 2011 is going to be merely on a cost-saving piece of software here or an enterprise zone designation there, one has to worry that the bar has not been set high enough. Is Mr. Kamenetz determined to make the quality of life better for the residents of his county, or merely to slow its erosion?

As a candidate for county executive, Mr. Kamenetz promised he would find efficiencies and promote a greater use of technology. Fair enough. He also bemoaned the fact that Baltimore County was not the government innovator that Howard County has become.

Granted, he has been in office only for a few months, and fiscal challenges have naturally drawn his attention. But voters expect him to be a leader, not just a bean counter. Mr. Kamenetz should look to do more than maintain the status quo more cheaply than has been done in the past. He is also expected to seek opportunities to make his county a better place to live and work.

This may be a tall order in these challenging economic times, but Baltimore County is equipped to deal with austerity better than most. No doubt Mr. Leopold would be happy to trade Annapolis for Towson anytime Mr. Kamenetz would like to swap.

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