By most measures, McDonald's has been a fantastically successful company, particularly at providing inexpensive burgers and French fries quickly to its patrons. In 1955, the U.S. fast-food chain sold hamburgers for 15 cents each. Today, a cheeseburger costs $1 which is, relative to inflation, 31 cents cheaper than its cheese-less forebear of 60 years ago.

Yet the company is losing young customers, perhaps its most important constituency, right and left. The value of its stock on Wall Street is in decline. Sales dipped 30 percent in the third quarter of last year, and employees are protesting low wages and modest benefits. Americans are still eating fast food, of course, but they are going elsewhere to get it.


Analysts have offered any number of explanations, but at the core is this: The cost of a product is not necessarily the end-all and be-all for customers. People aren't satisfied with a low price if it's not what they want, and an employer can't keep providing the same thing over and over again while ignoring changing public needs and preferences.

The McDonald's example came to mind last week with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's release of a $1.9 billion budget proposal. At the top of the list of his budgetary accomplishments, as it has been for every year of his time in office (and as it was for his predecessors as well), is that it holds the line of taxes.

That means no increase in the property tax rate for the 27th year in a row and no increase in the income "piggyback" tax rate for the 23rd straight year. Mr. Kamenetz expects spending in the county to grow 4.7 percent from the current year but almost entirely as a result of growth and improved economic performance.

"We are conservative in our budgeting process," Mr. Kamenetz announced in his annual budget message to the county. "We identify savings at every level and develop new efficiencies to save us money down the road. We also oppose actions that threaten to harm our tax base, and we work hard to keep our expenses down."

All of which is certainly true. Mr. Kamenetz clearly cares about keeping costs down. We would further endorse some choices he's made in how he spends tax dollars, too — paying a modest 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment to county employees, setting aside more money for school construction and renovation and providing enough in surplus to maintain the county's Triple-A bond rating, to name a few examples.

But that still begs the question: Is Baltimore County providing residents the services they desire and doing it well? While the county invites public feedback both online and by telephone, it's impossible to know for sure. Mostly, such feedback is used to address complaints — my trash didn't get picked up, the snow plow hasn't been down my street or the neighbor hasn't cut his grass — and the cumulative results aren't made available to the public. County government doesn't actively survey residents to judge customer preferences or satisfaction on a broader scale or in a more representative way. Perhaps it should, as Baltimore City has done in recent years.

Holding the line on taxes is an admirable goal. But it's a measurement of only half the transaction. Just ask McDonald's, which has found that holding the line on the cost of a burger isn't necessarily working. And here's a crucial difference: McDonald's will at least ask its customers what they want; it just hasn't figured out how to deliver that product to them.

Perhaps Baltimore County residents aren't looking for innovation and new ideas, an approach that has practically defined Howard County — the Chipotle of this already over-extended metaphor. But here's one way to measure the performance of the two subdivisions: Whether people want to live there or not. Since 2010, Baltimore County's population has grown 2.7 percent while Howard County (with its higher per-pupil spending on schools) has grown 7.7 percent and the state 3.5 percent overall, according to the Census Bureau. Are these the equivalent of customers looking elsewhere for their burgers?

Maybe but maybe not. Census data is an imperfect measure of the success or failure of local government services, although it probably deserves as much consideration as the lack of movement in property and income tax rates. Still, the question is not only whether the county's budget is sufficiently "bare bones," as County Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins has already described it, but whether it has the right kind of meat on them for the county to grow and prosper in the future.