Is boring better?

Our view: Baltimore County executive’s proposed budget shows the value of a cautious approach to spending — and taxation

April 15, 2010

While the $2.578 billion budget Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. presented to the county council today in Towson is 4 percent smaller than last year's spending plan and offers workers no cost-of-living raises, you couldn't help but detect a note of satisfaction in the proceedings. Bad times are good times in a county known for its financial caution.

This may be what Mr. Smith described as a "maintenance" budget, but with no employee furloughs or layoffs — and no tax increases — it is bound to make many of his fellow county executives envious. It certainly requires less sacrifice of county workers than Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly are expecting from state employees in the coming fiscal year.

The difference is that while the economic downturn hit every jurisdiction hard, Baltimore County was simply better braced for the blow than most. Where others expanded government in good times when booming real estate sales pushed up tax revenues, the county chose to funnel those funds to one-time projects such as school construction or library renovations, diminishing borrowing and not permanently expanding government.

So while Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake grapples with how to raise $50 million in new taxes to avoid fire and police layoffs, Mr. Smith can brag that his property and income tax rates will not be raised for the 22nd and 18th year in a row, respectively. It is a sensibility that pre-dates Mr. Smith's two terms in office, but one that he, at the urging of County Administrative Officer Fred Homan, has embraced with great relish.

The county's projected $150 million deficit vanishes under Mr. Smith's plan thanks in no small part to cooperative public employee unions that recently agreed to pension and retiree health care reforms. It also doesn't hurt that the county's 4 percent cap on property assessments has cushioned the impact of the real estate downturn on tax payments.

That doesn't necessarily make Baltimore County a tax haven. Just as the county is reluctant to increase spending, it has been slow to lower taxes, too. Voters seem to have long ago accepted this trade-off. They seem willing to put up with chronically over-crowded athletic fields and 95-degree heat in middle school classrooms lacking air conditioners in return for stable tax rates.

Nor does it make Towson the most exciting county seat on earth. Let Harford slash taxes or Howard create innovative health care programs. When times are bad, Baltimore County's go-slow philosophy shines brightest. Who needs the excitement of a financial crisis, anyway?

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