In deference to tough economic times for local governments, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger submitted yesterday an austere budget for 2003 that avoids layoffs, cuts in services or delays in projects.
The $1.8 billion budget includes new money for revitalization in Dundalk, replacement of old computers in schools and development of new technology for county departments.
But the massive capital projects that have been a hallmark of Ruppersberger's previous seven years are missing - the $66 million allocated to capital projects last year was cut to $1 million this year. Police and schools, which were the other two main priorities of his administration, saw modest increases of 1.7 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.
Because of the county's relatively stable population and the fiscal conservatism of the Ruppersberger administration, Baltimore County has been able to hold down general fund growth much more than any other metropolitan-area county over the past decade, and county officials say that enabled them to deal with the recession without decreasing services.
"When times were good, we channeled our resources into things we needed - things that would last," Ruppersberger said in his budget message to the County Council. "We refused to live beyond our means."
Baltimore County was not so disciplined in the boom years of the 1980s, and as a result, the early 1990s recession set off a painful series of layoffs and budget cuts.
After a small property tax cut last year, rates will remain at $1.115 per $100 of assessed value for fiscal 2003. The average residential property tax bill is estimated at $1,465, according to Rupperberger's plan. For the 2002 fiscal year, which ends June 30, the average bill was estimated to be $1,463.
The budget proposal is Ruppersberger's eighth and last as county executive, and includes only a few new programs. Highlights include:
$3.5 million in capital funds for revitalization projects in Dundalk and $35,000 to help pay an executive director for the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit organization that is working with a team of architects and planners to spruce up the east-side community.
$1.5 million to start a fund to periodically replace the 30,200 computers in county classrooms.
$1.5 million for the county's Office of Information Technology to pursue uses of technology to improve county services.
Prekindergarten programs in six schools and all-day kindergarten in two others.
A national team of architects and urban designers unveiled a plan this month to revitalize Dundalk by capitalizing on its waterfront and creating better links with Baltimore City.
Hundreds of residents there have contributed funds to begin the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., but the money to hire an executive director and the $3.5 million the county will devote to capital projects there will greatly speed their efforts, said Scott Holupka, the organization's president.
"The government money is just a down payment," he said. "The goal is to make the area attractive enough that we can start to attract private investors to come and start doing some of the major projects, but some of the groundwork will certainly have to be done with state and county funds."
Thomas G. Iler, director of the Office of Information Technology, said the county began to solicit ideas for new technology services from county departments last year and will be rolling out new programs within the next two months.
The review committee hasn't decided which ideas will be funded, but it is looking at a variety of "e-government" services - paying fees online, for example - and ways to make departments more efficient.
Although the economy appears to be picking up, Budget and Finance Director Fred Homan said there will be cause for concern in fiscal 2004. The state is projecting an $800 million deficit, and in the past it has balanced its budget by cutting the funds it sends to the counties.
"We have been told they are not looking at us, and this year, quite frankly, they did not hit the locals hard," Homan said. "But they have an $800 million problem, and they have a constitutional obligation to balance the budget ... so, yeah, you've got to be aware."
The proposed budget goes to the County Council for review. The council will hold a public hearing on Ruppersberger's proposal on April 30 at 7 p.m. at Loch Raven High School.