SNOW HILL – Delegates Jim Mathias and Norman Conway had to deal with some pointed questions at this week’s County Commissioners meeting.
At one point during the meeting, Commission President Bud Church, asked the delegates to stand and be acknowledged. After the brief interlude, Church continued the meeting. However, just before adjournment, he asked if either of the delegates wished to address the gathering.
Mathias accepted and took a moment to thank the Maryland State Highway Association, who’d made the main presentation for the day, on the progress they’d been making, especially on Route 113.
“I’m grateful that the 113 project is moving forward,” he said.
After making his acknowledgments, Commissioner Judy Boggs had a blunt question for Mathias.
“When are we getting our highway user funds back?,” she asked.
The funds, which are calculated by gas tax revenue and vehicle registration fees, are meant to be used by local areas for road improvements. Recently, Maryland had to cut back on those funds for local municipalities drastically.
“The government is smaller now than it was in 2007,” Mathias answered. “Six billion has been cut from the general fund so there had to be sacrifices. In this case, one of those was highway user funds.”
But Mathias was optimistic about the potential for eventually seeing the return of some of those funds.
“Hopefully, not by taxing, but by venture capital…we’ll be able to restore those funds responsibly,” he said.
Boggs was not satisfied by the response. “That’s fine, but you still haven’t done much to answer my question,” she said.
Boggs pointed out that, since highway user funds were generated locally, the state government shouldn’t tamper with them.
“It’s our money,” she told Mathias.
Church spoke up in defense of Mathias.
“In all fairness to Delegate Mathias, he said we’ll get the funds back when they’re available,” Church said. “He doesn’t have a crystal ball as much as you or I do.”
Boggs acknowledged the point, but still expressed dissatisfaction with vague timelines and blame being put upon the poor economy.
Commissioner Linda Busick reminded the assembly that every county, with the exception of Baltimore City, had suffered cuts to highway user funds, not just Worcester.
Mathias, who told the commissioners he was a big music fan, said that the situation reminded him of lyrics in a Bob Dylan song about “being a drag.”
“I don’t like being a drag when I walk into a room,” Mathias said.
Gestured to Conway, Mathias said, “he doesn’t like being a bad news bear, I don’t like doing it, but sometimes we have to be.”
Conway joined his colleague in addressing the commission.
“One of the hardest decisions dealt with highway usage funds,” said Conway, referencing the budget deliberations.
Conway then explained that there were tentative hopes to start phasing the funding back in starting 2013, but that the budget was a fragile thing. Still, Conway did confirm that Route 113, which is entering the third phase in its renovation, would remain a priority.
As to addressing Boggs’ discontent with Mathias’ uncertain timetable, Conway could only remind the commissioners that the economy throughout the state and even the country was still in bad shape.
“If things improve, then highway user money will become a priority,” Conway said.
This satisfied Boggs, who claimed to be, “delighted to hear you’ve made it a priority. … What I’m hearing from you is that it’s being taken very seriously.”