Despite a troubled economy and volatile stock market, the Baltimore County executive assured business leaders yesterday that the county is in sound shape and will weather tough times.
In his annual State of the County address, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger told the Baltimore County and Eastern Baltimore Area chambers of commerce that the economy, from the changing eastern waterfront communities to the rural north, has slowed but is healthy, and "I am not afraid for our future."
"We have been careful and prudent managers," Ruppersberger told nearly 200 chamber members and others at a Towson luncheon. "We have just enjoyed many years of unprecedented growth and prosperity, ... but periods of strong growth do not last forever."
He said the county invested in schools, infrastructure and transformation of older neighborhoods during the period of growth and prepared for an inevitable slowdown.
"Basically, we've done what any smart household does ... we lived within our means," he said.
He said close work with the County Council's Spending Affordability Committee and prudent spending allowed the county to maintain triple-A bond ratings, which, he said, saved millions of dollars in interest on projects from schools to senior centers.
After the speech, Ruppersberger found a surprising ally in Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat who has been a critic of the executive.
"The county has been well-run," said Kamenetz. "We have a surplus, he's been careful at spending. It's paying dividends now. Dutch should take credit for the economic shape we're in right now."
Others who heard the executive's speech seemed to agree with his assessment of the county's economy.
Tony Summers, marketing manager of White Marsh Mall, said that "people are shopping at White Marsh, that I can tell you. On Sunday, there was a line of 200 people outside a toy store.
"Everyone is a little cautious but there are more sales incentives being exercised by merchants, like discounts and gifts with purchases. Surprisingly, we are a little bit ahead of our numbers at this point last year."
In his speech, Ruppersberger did what he does best: act as cheerleader for the county and, indirectly, himself.
He pointed to $800 million spent in the past seven years on projects including Police Athletic League centers and community centers such as Fleming Center in Turners Station in Dundalk. The county has bought hundreds of acres for parks, built 53 athletic fields and repaved more than 580 miles of county roads, he said.
"We have used the recent good economy to catch up on basic needs and to give communities the resources they need to succeed," he said. "Now that funding will be more difficult, the county can revert to a maintenance mode."
Unfinished projects won't suffer, he said.
"This year, we are spending more than $60 million in ongoing revenue on one-time expenses," he said. "This is money we have in the bank. We know it's there for us."
Ruppersberger made no mention of Essex-Middle River revitalization, in which he suffered one of his most severe political defeats. As part of that project, he proposed Senate Bill 509, which would have expanded the county's power to condemn land. The General Assembly approved the bill, but voters soundly defeated it last year in a referendum.
But other plans there go on: a waterfront destination on the headwaters of the Middle River, new single-family houses on the site of the old Riverdale apartment complex and a park that will replace the Villages of Tall Trees.
Another strong point of the county's economy, Ruppersberger said, is the diversity of business: technology, services and manufacturing.
Another speaker, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, hailed Ruppersberger's fiscal responsibility and then brought rounds of laughter to the room.
"Actually, I'm glad to be any place where there's a seat and a table," Sarbanes said, who was forced to leave his Senate office building after anthrax was found there.