County Executive Kevin Kamenetz took office a year ago this week, promising to make Baltimore County "the ideas county of the region."
Since then, amid growing stress on the county's budget, his biggest accomplishment sounds less flashy: "paying our bills each month."
The former county councilman has merged agencies, trimmed the government workforce to its smallest size in 25 years by cutting vacant positions, and plans to shrink it further through an early-retirement incentive. He says the work has paid off with the county's continued AAA bond rating — and because the county hasn't seen any furloughs, layoffs or tax increases.
But those moves have required time and energy, and some would like to see Kamenetz do more to deliver on the promise to bring ideas to the county of 805,000 people.
"I think he needs to begin thinking about a broad vision once the economy improves," said 5th District Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who added that he's been pleased with the way Kamenetz has handled fiscal issues. "We need to be thinking beyond the recession and … focusing on revitalization of places like downtown Towson, infrastructure needs, schools."
Kamenetz, a Democrat, also has drawn fire for some of his political appointments, with critics calling them politics as usual. And some on the County Council say he needs to spend more time developing relationships with members of the mostly new panel — though people who work with Kamenetz say the sometimes-brash politician has made efforts to listen to others and build coalitions in his new job.
In 2012, Kamenetz plans to continue budgetary restraint, he said. He also wants to put more public records online, and said he's working on plans to revitalize Sparrows Point in the southeastern county.
"I don't lie awake at night thinking about the problems that we have," he said. "I really come into work each day thinking about the opportunities."
Kamenetz says the hard times have helped his administration zero in on what works in government. Shortly after taking office, for instance, he announced technology initiatives to help streamline agencies' work.
"In general, the economy has helped us to focus on priorities," he said.
When Kamenetz took office, the county was facing declining revenues in both property and income taxes for the first time. He balanced his $1.6 billion budget, unveiled in April, using $61 million pulled from reserves.
"During my 16 years on the council, we never faced the economic situation that we face today," he said.
Those numbers have colored Kamenetz's start at the helm of Maryland's third most populous county. Many who work with him point to fiscal matters as the dominant theme of his first year.
"That's been the No. 1 issue, is having to deal with the shortages of revenues coming into the county," said County Council President John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat. "He's been prudent with the resources that we have. He's trying to do more with less."
In hard times, there's no money for fancy programs, which can be difficult for elected officials, said Kamenetz's predecessor, former County Executive Jim Smith.
"Sometimes you have to plateau for a while because of economic circumstances. And I think that's where Baltimore County is right now, and I think he's managing that as well as one can do. It affects your vision for the county," Smith said. "I don't think he's allowed himself much time [for a] vision because it'd be a somewhat frustrating exercise if you knew you didn't have the resources to fund it."
The tight money situation also left less time for getting to know council members, Olszewski said. Five out of the seven council members were new to the job this year, and both they and Kamenetz were getting their feet wet.
"Having to deal with these economic issues, I don't think he had as much time as he would like to spend building relationships with other council members in the beginning of his term," Olszewski said. "Now that he's gotten a handle on that, I think he's gotten better with working with the new members of the council."