Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's plan to offer some county properties for sale in Dundalk, Randallstown and Towson has the potential to solve a few problems and create better opportunities for some students without any cost to the taxpayers, though it also has the potential to create some new problems, too. As such, it is a perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of Baltimore County government. If your main concern is efficiency and tight stewardship of taxpayer dollars, you'll be happy. If you're looking for a bold vision, not so much. The question is not whether Mr. Kamenetz's plan is a good idea — in general, it is — but whether it is sufficient.
Towson needs a new fire station. The current one was built in 1958 and doesn't serve the community's present needs well. The county had money in the budget at one point to replace it, but Mr. Kamenetz diverted it into a much-needed addition to Stoneleigh Elementary School. The current station, at the intersection of York Road and Bosley Avenue, is in a heavily traveled commercial corridor, and the county knew there might be interest in the property from developers. Mr. Kamenetz asked his staff to explore the idea of selling it and moving the fire station — and while they were at it, to look for similar opportunities elsewhere.
In addition to the Towson fire station, the county identified police substations in Randallstown and Dundalk that could be moved to other government property. The plan is to issue a request for proposals, and if any of the sites generate sufficient interest, to sell them and use the proceeds to cover the cost of moving the existing facilities and to install air conditioning and/or technology upgrades in schools in those communities.
The Randallstown element of the plan is unlikely to generate much controversy. The Dundalk portion is a little trickier because it will involve consolidating some under-used schools in the area, a prospect that may be necessary for the efficient operation of the school system but which is likely to cause some consternation among parents and students.
The Towson moves, though, have already sparked some opposition. The plan calls for moving the fire station to the site of a small park on Towsontown Boulevard behind the library and district court buildings. That park is a rare piece of open space in central Towson, and while the site itself is surrounded by commercial uses, it also abuts a residential community. Mr. Kamenetz acknowledges that it is not ideal and says he is evaluating other options. He should find one. Replacing an outdated fire station by taking away a park is not a good solution.
If all goes according to plan, county officials expect they might generate enough surplus cash to upgrade the technology in three or four schools and add air conditioning to two or three others, out of the 66 county schools that lack it. Meanwhile, 80 percent of county schools are 40 or more years old, and another 10 percent are 30-40 years old. The lack of air conditioning in many schools has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but it far from the system's only — or even most important — problem.
Mr. Kamenetz says he is making the best of a difficult situation. The county's finances are still hurting from the recession and the downstream effects of budget-balancing maneuvers on the state level. He has managed to avoid furloughs, layoffs and tax increases during his tenure, and county residents no doubt appreciate that. Furthermore, one subtext of these moves is that the county government and school system leadership under Superintendent Dallas Dance are cooperating in a way they had not for the previous decade or more.
At the same time, though, Baltimore County's public facilities are aging on a scale that is going to require much bigger thinking than this. Mr. Kamenetz says he is looking for a lot of little ideas for solving problems rather than pining for unaffordable big ones, and he asks us to stay tuned. But when he ran for office, he did so with the promise to make Baltimore County the "ideas county." So far, he has focused on one idea, and it's the one that has animated Baltimore County government for years: maximizing efficiency. That is a welcome trait, and one that many other governments would do well to emulate. But given the challenges the county faces, it may not be enough.