The Baltimore County Council gave unanimous approval to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's second budget, which totals more than $2.9 billion.
Council members called the budget bare bones, but at the same time raised questions about the future trajectory of increased spending over the next three years as revenues decline.
Final approval was a foregone conclusion after the council cut $208,000 last week from Kamenetz's proposed $1.6 billion general fund budget.
Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond said the cuts were relatively small because "this was a bare bones budget."
During the two weeks of budget hearings, the council noted projected future spending would outpace revenues by nearly $200 million over the next three years. That projection raises questions about the possibility of additional reductions in county employees, or increases in property and local income taxes.
"I think it's something on the horizon but I am not sure it's imminent," Almond said. "I feel like it could happen down the road but I think we're in pretty good shape."
The county has not increased its property tax rate in 24 years. The income tax rate has remained stable for 20 years.
Kamenetz has said in several past interviews that he has no interest in seeing either rate increase.
The county has also avoided employee layoffs and furloughs that plagued other local governments in the state during the last three years. The county saved nearly $20 million when 310 employees took advantage of the county's early retirement incentive plan earlier this year.
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said nationally many jurisdictions are seeing their income tax collections increasing. He said he remains hopeful that the county will experience a similar uptick as the recession wanes, and more people find work.
"The economy will eventually turn around," Quirk said. "Everything is cyclical but it's probably going to take five years to get back to where we were. Between now and then we're going to have to make some tough decisions, but it's not like we're in a dire situation."
Quirk said the county, like state and federal governments, will have to learn to make do with less and prioritize.
"I think we're entering a period where we have to understand that if we want something, we're going to have to pay for it," Quirk said.
That philosophy will likely extend to the county's capital budget plans.
The council approved Kamenetz's $255 million request for schools, roads and other projects and the nearly $919 million spending plan for the next six years.
But the council, in it's budget message, noted "that the county must be vigilant in scaling back its capital program, whenever possible, to ensure that debt ratios do not exceed target levels."
School construction and renovation projects total $149 million—a 36 percent increase over last year.
The money for school projects comprises nearly 60 percent of Kamenetz's total bond request this year.
More than $74 million has been set aside for the construction of a 200-seat addition to Sparks Elementary school, the construction of a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel, and another elementary school in the northwest area of the county, as well as an addition and renovation of Hereford High School.
Ten schools will receive air conditioning including:
- Catonsville Elementary
- Fort Garrison Elementary
- Sudbrook Magnet Middle
- Timonium Elementary
- Franklin Elementary
- Hebbville Elementary
- Woodmoor Elementary
- Middleborough Elementary
- Hereford High School (part of renovations)
- Stoneleigh Elementary (part of renovations)
The approved budget takes effect July 1.