Laslo Boyd: Governing Baltimore County

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By Laslo Boyd: 

No property tax rate increases in a quarter century. No increases in the local piggyback income tax rate in 21 years. The highest bond-rating category available to a county government. Two well regarded predecessors with reputations for good management of the county budget.

How do you follow acts like those? For a start, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has a background similar to Dutch Ruppersberger and Jim Smith; all three are lawyers and former members of County Council. And when you talk to Kamenetz, it’s not surprising that he begins by listing the things that he’s done to improve efficiency and the organization of County Government.

Greater use of technology. The fewest government employees in 25 years. Reorganization of county agencies through consolidation. A closer working relationship with the Baltimore County Public Schools. An improved County Government web site that allows residents to deal with many issues through self-service.

Implicit in this discussion is an acknowledgement that County residents expect good management and take that perspective to the ballot box at election time. It’s only after you get through the improved management part of the conversation that Kamenetz starts talking about his big picture view of his job.

He sees his ability to achieve cost savings and improved services as the key to being able to invest in the long-term needs of Baltimore County. And Kamenetz is very clear about what those long term needs are. If you are used to watching the poisonous and unproductive debates that currently characterize national politics, it is incredibly refreshing to hear someone talk about investing in the future.

His investment list is probably the same as every local government should start with, but he seems to have figured out a strategy for making it achievable. More money for public education that currently accounts for 52% of Baltimore County’s budget. Upgrading county schools, of which 80% are more than 40 years old. Kamenetz points with pride to the high rankings of county schools as well as the money he has already been able to put into school renovation and construction.

A second area is public safety. It’s an issue that has been dramatically re-emphasized recently with the spike in murders in Baltimore City and the many problems of Detroit, of which bankruptcy was seemingly the inevitable outcome. Kamenetz cites crime rates that are at record lows and to increasingly diverse fire and police departments.

Investment in the county’s infrastructure is his third priority. One example is that he has been able to double the amount of road repair work that the county is doing. Another is millions for water and sewer system upgrades. Additionally, when Kamenetz reviewed economic development initiatives around the county, he was able to talk about them in terms of long-term investments in the county’s attractiveness and viability.

What seems to link all these pieces together is the County Executive’s vision of making Baltimore County an appealing and distinctive place for people to move and businesses to either grow or relocate. He talked about the critical role that schools play in making Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge vibrant and stable neighborhoods.

In other parts of the County, such as the Route 43 area, his goal is to create new communities for people who wouldn’t otherwise move to Baltimore County. Similarly, he described plans for new jobs and economic growth in the Southwest Baltimore County Enterprise Zone and a rebirth of Sparrows Point through expansion of the Port of Baltimore.

And all of that doesn’t even get to the two most dramatic efforts, the build-out of Owings Mills, which seems finally to be coming to fruition, and a very ambitious set of plans for $600 million of private investment in downtown Towson. Currently the county seat has no real core despite having two universities and three hospitals. The latter effort would, if successful, have a major impact on the economic base of the County as well as on its overall image.

Will all of these goals be achieved? Will Kevin Kamenetz be able to continue navigating through what up to now have been tough economic times? Will he be able to bring changes to a county that has not always been very receptive to them?

His 16 years on the County Council certainly give him a better understanding of the workings of local government than many people bring to the job of executive. Local government, unlike at the national level, is about delivering services and making things work rather than about ideology and partisanship. Moreover, Baltimore County has come a long way since the time of Spiro Agnew, Dale Anderson, and white flight.

And if all this didn’t make Kevin Kamenetz an important public figure, watch as the various gubernatorial candidates come to call between now and next June 24. That election could well be decided in Baltimore County.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.