Smith unveils $2.53 billion budget

Plan holds line on taxes while increasing school spending

April 17, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. proposed yesterday a $2.53 billion budget that maintains county services without raising taxes and funnels millions of extra tax dollars to school renovations.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July calls for a modest increase in government spending, reflecting an economic downturn. But it offers several new programs and proposes pay raises of varying amounts for all county employees. It also calls for contentious changes in employees' retirement plans that are designed to cut long-term costs.

"The budget we submit today continues Baltimore County's tradition of fiscal responsibility," Smith, a second-term Democrat, told the County Council in its chambers in Towson. "This proposed budget supports the progress we have made and promotes Baltimore County's future renaissance."

His operating budget, which covers day-to-day expenses, includes a $1.659 billion general fund of solely county revenue, a figure that represents a 3.1 percent increase over the fund for the current fiscal year. The remainder of the operating budget comes from state and federal aid and other sources.

Smith said the budget adheres to "spending affordability guidelines," which state that government spending should not outpace the county's economic growth. With no proposed increase in the rate of property or income taxes, officials are counting on increased revenue through rising property assessments.

Smith also proposed a $703 million capital budget that is devoted in part to the continuing renovation of middle schools. More than $91 million of the plan would come from this year's budget surplus.

County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz said his first impression of Smith's proposal is that the county can meet residents' needs even in a declining real estate market.

"All bodes well in Baltimore County," Kamenetz said. "It's a very fiscally, well-managed county."

After a small tax cut last year by the council, the property-tax rate would remain at $1.10 per $100 of assessed value under Smith's proposal. Kamenetz and Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, said they were not likely to seek a cut in the tax rate this year because of the potential for cuts in state aid to counties.

More than half of Smith's operating budget would go to schools. Smith said a highlight of his plan is the hiring of 85 employees for the opening of an academy for middle and high school students with behavioral problems.

Smith has also proposed spending $45 million on a new digital emergency communications system and the hiring of 13 more police officers.

Smith said the toughest decisions in writing his fifth budget involved changes to retirement benefits that some workers had resisted. Under his proposal, civilian workers with less than 30 years' service would have to work until age 65, instead of 60, to receive full retirement benefits. County Administrative Officer Fred J. Homan, who prepared the budget, said he expects the changes to lower the county's annual tab for retirement benefits from $65 million to $50 million.

The County Council, which is permitted only to cut Smith's budget, will hold a hearing on the proposal May 1 and vote on a plan May 24.

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