After several years of cuts in aid, offloading of state expenses, and unfunded mandates, Maryland county officials who gathered for their annual conference have decided “enough is enough,” said Rick Pollitt, new president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Like many of the hundreds of elected and appointed officials who met in Cambridge, Wicomico County Executive Pollitt can reel off the series of actions taken by the governor and the legislature to balance the state budget on the backs of county governments, which are just as hard-pressed by flat revenues.
Money for schools has kept pace, but funding for health departments and roads has been slashed. The state has shifted about a quarter of its full funding of teacher pension costs onto the counties, and it has reinforced requirements to maintain local funding for education.
The state also is forcing counties to impose new fees for stormwater management and restrict expansion of septic systems that help fuel residential growth in some rural areas. Counties have also been saddled with new federal requirements to reduce nutrients that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
Highway Funds Hit
The most serious loss for many local jurisdictions has been the $700 million cut to highway user revenues that were shifted into the general fund to bolster other programs, such as school aid.
“That’s big. That was the most significant hit,” said Pollitt, a Democrat. For his own county, highway funding went from $7 million down to $200,000.
The counties fought those cuts and waged a losing battle against the shift of one-quarter of teacher pension costs and more stringent requirements for “maintenance of effort” on school funding.
“I’m not going to raise taxes just to pay for schools,” said Laura Price, a Republican member of the Talbot County Council. While Talbot is considered one of Maryland’s wealthiest counties, due to the number of high-income residents with shorefront properties, Price said median incomes in Talbot County are actually below the state average.
“Teachers are very important, but they’re not more important than EMTs” and other public safety workers, Price said.
Elaine Kramer, chief financial officer for St. Mary’s County, said other than schools, “we’re operating at 1999 staffing levels.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) emphasizes the continued payment of $5.6 billion in state aid for schools. But Kramer said, “They weren’t paying their fair share for all those years.” The counties were actually picking up the responsibility for school funding mandated in the state constitution.
Rural Development Restrictions
The legislature has also been piling other mandates onto county governments, particularly to reduce the flow of polluting nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay.
Pollitt said there is broad agreement across Maryland “the Chesapeake is a national treasure.”
“There’s got to be a way to protect the Bay responsibly,” Pollitt said.
He said scientific experts differ on the most significant source of Bay pollution. Eastern Shore officials recently pointed to the polluted sediment behind the Conowingo Dam at the mouth of the Susquehanna River as a major source of nutrients, particularly after major storms wash sediment from the river’s watershed in Pennsylvania.
“I’m bothered by the sharpness of the debate” and the conflicting views of experts with equally credible credentials, Pollitt said. “Let’s get the right minds at the table and hammer things out.”
Transit Funding Concern
A major concern for Maryland’s two largest counties is the need for more revenues for the Transportation Trust Fund for transit projects such as the 16-mile Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton and the Corridor Cities Transitway along I-270.
Roger Berliner of the Montgomery County Council said there will be no money in the Transportation Trust Fund to build either one unless revenues increase. He favors a sales tax increase to pay for transportation because “it is the easiest to do politically” and “it brings in the most revenues.”
“This will be a difficult battle without the governor’s personal commitment and muscle,” Berliner said. “With it, we have a fighting chance.”
Otherwise, “my county will continue to lose its competitive edge to northern Virginia,” he said. “I want to make progress. I want the state to live up to its responsibility.”
Len Lazarick ([email protected]) writes for MarylandReporter.com. Reprinted with permission.