Panel: Baltimore Co. facing lean budget year

Spending Affordability Committee recommends $36 million maximum increase

February 16, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County will likely pull from its reserves to balance the budget and stay within guidelines proposed this week by the county Spending Affordability Committee.

With the county facing a $38.5 million revenue shortfall as it goes into budget deliberations, the committee recommended capping next year's spending plan at $1.63 billion in a report released Tuesday.

The committee's guidelines would allow an increase of approximately $36 million over this year's budget, funds that could come from about $147 million in surplus money. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is expected to present the proposed budget for 2012 to the County Council in April. Historically, county executives have not strayed from the committee's nonbinding recommendations.

Kamenetz will present a balanced budget for the 2012 fiscal year and make adjustments to the current year's budget, spokesman Don Mohler said.

While Mohler said it's premature to detail exactly how the county will balance the budget, adjustments will not involve layoffs or furloughs of county workers. Efficiency, consolidation and innovation — Kamenetz's signature slogan since taking office in December — will be reflected in the proposed spending plan, he said.

"It's going to be demanded by this budget," Mohler said. "Looking a little bit down the road to 2013, it does not look much rosier."

Looming over the budget process is a major unknown: what, if any, costs might be passed on from the state. Gov. Martin O'Malley said last month that he won't propose shifting teacher pension costs to counties in 2012. However, the governor's spending proposal would leave counties to pick up most of the tab for collecting property taxes and would not provide reimbursement for road maintenance fees.

The committee's recommendations noted encouraging reports of declining unemployment rates and possible growth due to the military base realignment and closure effort, or BRAC.

Last year, the county faced a $138 million revenue shortfall, largely attributed to a sharp drop in income tax. Officials renegotiated union contracts, froze many jobs, and pulled the rest from reserves. Unions representing the county's 8,000 workers agreed to forgo cost-of-living raises for two years and contribute more to pensions in exchange for job security; under the deals, workers may not be laid off or furloughed.

The labor agreements are helping the county through tough times now, said council chairman John Olszewski Sr.

"I'm sure that the administration will be looking at all avenues to be more efficient, to do more with less," he said. "We will continue to do that so that it doesn't affect services."

The council earlier this year approved Kamenetz's proposal to consolidate several county departments and eliminate more than 140 vacant positions to save about $8 million.

raven.hill@baltsun.com

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