Instead of a crew cut, the Baltimore County Council voted Tuesday to take just a little off the top of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's first budget.
The council, in the last day of departmental budget hearings, preliminarily approved more than $258,000 in budget reductions—less than two-hundredths of a percent of a $1.6 billion general fund spending plan.
As part of the cuts, the county voted to reduce the amount of money donated by the county to some city-based nonprofit groups and museums.
"It was a lean budget but we still had to do our due diligence," said Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr.
The reductions are not official until the council votes on the final budget package at its May 26 meeting. Historically, the cuts approved by the council during the final deliberations are not changed before the official vote.
This year's cut is thought to be the second smallest cut in terms of total dollars in the past 21 years. Last year, the council trimmed about $161,000 from a nearly identical general fund budget amount, which was thought at the time to be the smallest cut in two decades.
Kamenetz's proposed budget contains no increases to the property tax or income tax rates. Neither rate has been raised in about two decades.
Difficult Times Ahead
In all, the council reviewed 15 departments as well as budgeted spending for county insurance costs, retirement benefits and the capital budget. The auditor recommended no cuts for 10 of the reviewed departments.
Of the eight remaining departments, the county auditor recommended cuts totaling more than $1.5 million. The largest of those recommendations was a $700,000 cut to the fire department, which the council ultimately rejected.
One of the largest reductions, about $120,000, came from the Department of Public Works. The majority of the cut, about $112,000, came from what was called a miscalculation in gas and electric expenses.
The council halved a $110,500 proposed cut that would have, in part, paid for a lawn mower for Robert E. Lee Park. The council and auditor said they expect the county will make up the difference through a separate fund for such equipment.
The council also cut nearly $24,000 from the sheriff's budget, including half of a nearly $37,700 line item for salary savings from positions that are expected to go unfilled for a time.
Don Mohler, a county spokesman and Kamenetz's chief of staff, praised the council's review process, calling it "a credit to the council and auditor's staff."
Of the cuts, Mohler said more difficult decisions are around the corner.
"Everybody realizes as difficult as fiscal year 2012 was, fiscal year 2013 will make [this budget] look like a honeymoon," Mohler said. "These cuts represent a real awareness by the council of how difficult it's going to be moving forward."
Council Sends Symbolic Message on Food Bank Cuts
Also falling to the budget ax was a portion of grant money given by the county to some city-based arts and nonprofit organizations.
The auditor had recommended no reduction to the county's nearly $7 million annual contribution.
But Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, proposed reducing grants of $50,000 or less by 10 percent.
"It struck me like a lightning bolt," Marks said. "I don't think we should be cutting vital services like the Maryland Food Bank to fund cultural organizations that don't seem to attract that many Baltimore County residents."
The council ultimately voted to spare the grants for the Star Spangled Banner Flag House and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum at the request of Councilwoman Cathy Bevins and Councilman Kenneth Oliver, respectively.
The reductions receiving preliminary council approval total about $27,000.
Driving the reductions were concerns raised by Marks and other council members related to an elimination of $250,000 in funding for the Maryland Food Bank. County officials pointed out that Kamenetz's proposed budget contained more than $529,000 in grants to homeless programs—an increase of more than $302,000 compared with the current year.
The council can only cut from the budget and cannot move money to other programs. Still, the council can, in its budget message, ask Kamenetz to move the $27,000 savings to the food bank.
Marks said he would like to add such language.
Olszewski was noncommittal.
"We'll have to see," Olszewski said.
Olszewski and the council will spend the next six days writing its budget message, which could also include a request that the fire department find a way to pay for adding fire specialists to a unit that investigates fires.
The council is scheduled to deliver that message and vote on the final version of the budget at 10 a.m. May 26.