First budget to set tone for Balto. Co. Executive Kamenetz

First-year county executive promises fiscal discipline, 'no surprises'

April 13, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been working since his swearing-in to craft a budget that sets the tone for his administration.

As the first-year County Executive prepares to release his spending plan Thursday, residents can expect a lean budget proposal with reflections of his hallmarks — such as eliminating positions and increasing the use of technology to deliver services.

The county is facing declining revenues, unanticipated cost shifts from the state and a budget shortfall for the current fiscal year. Earlier this week, Kamenetz, a Democrat, said the financial climate is the worst he has seen in his 16 years in local government, and that next year doesn't look any better.

"I'm only here to further tighten the belt," he said.

Kamenetz started meeting with the county's House and Senate delegation immediately after his December inauguration. His modest requests focused on school construction and economic development along Liberty Road, while he sought to protect the county from draconian aid cuts and cost shifts.

Hours after the legislative session ended Monday at midnight, the county budget — all 800-plus pages — was on its way to the printer.

"There's very little time to take action," Kamenetz said. "It leaves us very little time to fine-tune the budget based upon what might have occurred in the General Assembly. It requires a lot of advance thought almost every day as to budget implications."

According to former county executives and political observers, the rough economic climate will test what Kamenetz has promoted as his major asset — four terms on the County Council.

Going from the end of the budget process as a council member to the beginning as executive is a big transition, but Kamenetz's decision to restructure executive agencies in his first month on the job was a good move, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

"In tough times you have to be thinking about your priorities when there isn't enough money to do everything you'd like to do," Sanderson said. "Having that philosophy, even before the county started to put together a budget plan, will probably serve him well."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who served as county executive from 1994 to 2002, said that he believes Kamenetz's council experience is an invaluable asset.

"It's not a learning curve for him," Ruppersberger said. "He knows when you have to downsize. He knows the areas that are important, and he knows the areas where you have to cut."

Ruppersberger's predecessor, Roger B. Hayden, recalled the tough task he faced during an economic decline in the 1990s. As funds shrank, Hayden said, he implemented a hiring freeze and layoffs, fought with bond agencies to protect the county's pristine AAA rating and kept a tight hold on spending — even cutting the county's dial-in time and weather service.

"The cost of government went up on average about 1.45 percent over those four years, which is pretty tight when you're looking at a budget of that size," Hayden said. "We tried to make people understand there was not a bottomless pit of money, and we didn't have a lot of money to do things."

Theodore Venetoulis, who was county executive in the 1970s and served as Kamenetz's transition adviser, spent every day with a different department leading up to his first budget, reviewing requests and priorities. But with the time crunch between the swearing-in and budget release, "it was hard to make that first one 'your' budget," he said. "The first one was the most complicated."

Though he has been tight-lipped about budget details, Kamenetz said there are no surprises.

"I plan to be consistent with what I've done in the last 100 days," he said. "I suspect that I've already set the tone — one that focuses on fiscal discipline."

Within hours of his inauguration, he proposed merging several county departments and trimming more than 140 positions to save $8 million. Months later, he proposed technological initiatives that he said would save the county millions more dollars.

"I've been a good student of the budget," Kamenetz said. "The major difference between myself and my two predecessors is they appeared to have a lot of good times and good opportunities to take on new initiatives that cost money."

Recalling his earlier comments on belt-tightening, he said, "Maybe one day I'll be able to expand my waist size."

raven.hill@baltsun.com

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