Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed Thursday a general fund operating budget of about $1.65 billion that includes no tax increases but reduces the number of county employees through attrition.
In introducing his spending plan for the 12 months beginning in July, Kamenetz highlighted proposed spending on education and infrastructure, including air conditioning for a dozen schools.
His budget proposal, presented during his State of the County address to members of the County Council in Towson, holds taxes flat in part by taking advantage of the projected $21 million in yearly savings expected through voluntary retirements of county employees, he said. The county would have 7 percent fewer employees under the new spending plan than it did last year.
"A key component of our plan to maintain county services, avoid increases in the tax rates, and protect our employees from furloughs or firings has been a voluntary reduction in the gross number of county employees," Kamenetz said.
The General Assembly adjourned Monday having passed a budget that includes about $500 million in spending cuts — many of which will affect local governments — but Kamenetz said his plan doesn't account for any reduction in aid because he doesn't have final numbers. Legislative leaders have called for a special session to consider tax increases to avoid spending cuts.
Kamenetz said his budget would continue the county's streak of avoiding tax increases, and would mark the county's 24th straight year without increasing the property tax rate and its 20th straight year without increasing the income tax rate. He emphasized that "tough decisions" are ahead.
"Frankly, it would be nice to tell you that the most difficult times are behind us, but that is simply not true," he said.
Kamenetz made it clear that there would be "no fluff" this year, said County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat.
In his address, Kamenetz announced that more than 300 employees were approved for an early-retirement incentive program unveiled late last year. More than 650 applied.
Almond said she hopes the county has taken steps to ensure that such a large departure will not reduce the quality of services.
"We have to be certain that we maintain service for our constituents, no matter what," she said.
Kamenetz's proposal increases the county's general fund operating budget by 2.8 percent compared with 2012, in part because it absorbs $15.7 million in teacher pension costs from the state and $20 million in additional employee benefit costs, Kamenetz said.
If it were not for those increased costs, his budget would have represented a $1 million decrease in base spending from 2012, he said.
Kamenetz also proposed a schools budget of more than $1.33 billion, maintaining levels from last year and providing for new air-conditioning systems in 12 schools, he said.
The budget adds 124 teaching positions while eliminating 50 non-classroom positions, Kamenetz said.
The budget would fund the continuing construction of a Hampton Elementary addition and a Stoneleigh Elementary renovation and addition.
It would allocate $4.2 million for a 200-seat Sparks Elementary addition; $18 million for a new 700-seat Mays Chapel Elementary School; $34 million for Hereford High renovations and additions; and $18.5 million for a new elementary school in the county's northwest.
It also includes a $149 million bond referendum request that would ask voters to support school renovations and construction.
And a $32.5 million referendum request would fund air-conditioning systems in 10 schools and air conditioning as part of larger renovations in two schools, Kamenetz said.
Schools were picked for air conditioning based on cost-efficiency, said Don Mohler, the county executive's chief of staff.
The schools are: Hereford High; Sudbrook Magnet Middle; and Catonsville, Fort Garrison, Franklin, Hebbville, Middleborough, Middlesex, Stoneleigh, Sussex, Timonium and Woodmoor elementary schools.
Parents from around the county had been lobbying school leaders and legislators to get money for air-conditioning. Outside of Garrett County, Baltimore County has the largest percentage of schools lacking air conditioning in the state. School leaders had not included any money for those upgrades in next year's budget, so the bond referendum was a surprise.
"I think it's a great day for the Middleborough children, teachers, and volunteers. The days of walking into their classrooms that reach 94 degrees by 8 a.m. will soon come to an end with air-conditioned relief," said Alan Southworth, a parent of a Middleborough Elementary student. "I applaud Mr. Kamenetz for taking the steps to resolve the dangerous heat related conditions."
Installing systems in those schools would decrease the percentage of schools without air conditioning from 54 percent when Kamenetz took office in 2010 to 36 percent, officials said.
Almond was disappointed that Pikesville High School is not scheduled for air conditioning. "There has been a huge movement afoot" there for such improvements, she said.
Lutherville Republican Councilman Todd Huff, though, said he was pleased with planned infrastructure improvements at schools in his district, saying they are long overdue.
Several council members said they believed Kamenetz hit the right notes in his address.
"He's going to take the dollars that he has and prioritize in the areas that are important to the constituents of Baltimore County," said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat.
Councilman David Marks of Perry Hall said that "as a Republican County Council member, I think the county executive has set a tone of efficiency and fiscal discipline that's quite appropriate."
Kamenetz's budget includes a list of infrastructure commitments under a six-year, $2 billion capital improvement program.
The proposal calls for spending $5 million on upgrading county technology programs; $6 million on major school maintenance; and $3 million on school roof repairs.
The budget proposes spending $20 million for road resurfacing projects in the next two years; $13 million for acquiring fire department breathing apparatus, medical units and ladder trucks; $26 million for heavy public works equipment for solid waste, utilities and snow removal operations; and $34 million for new technology and equipment for county government.
Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, CT Now