Council Briefed on General Assembly Session

OCEAN CITY- Resort officials this week got an update on
activity in the recent General Assembly session that will affect Ocean City and
other municipalities around the state the most and took an early look at
potential legislation to support next year.

As a member of the Maryland Municipal League (MLL), an
organization of the 157 towns throughout the state, Ocean City has a vested
interest in legislation related to municipal issues debated and enacted by
state lawmakers. To that end, officials from MML’s Government Relations Office
were on hand during Tuesday’s Mayor and Council work session to brief town
officials on some of the highlights and lowlights of the General Assembly
session that ended in April.

MLL Government Relations Executive Director Scott Hancock
told the mayor and council the 2007 was as much about forging new relationships
as it was about any legislation adopted, especially with a new administration
in Annapolis. Hancock said it was particularly important to make sure the new
governor and new delegates and senators understood the importance of the
proposed legislation affecting the municipalities.

“It was about making friends,” he said. “It was about
making sure they knew us and making sure they the things that were important to
the municipalities.

What is usually most important to the municipalities
including Ocean City is the amount of state dollars flowing to the towns in the
form of grants for municipal projects. Unfortunately, with the state facing a
projected $1.4 billion structural deficit this year, most bond bills for the
municipalities never saw the light of day.

“The most important thing for the towns is the state
budget,” said Hancock. “Certain financial requests were not approved because of
the structural deficit. The strategy for getting bills passed hinged on the
deficit. Any bills with fiscal notes attached did not get much consideration
this year.”

Hancock said the situation will not likely improve in the
near future with the deficit expected to get worse before it gets any better.
“We had some very, very tough issues we had to confront because of the fiscal
constraints,” he said. “Next year, we expect to even more difficult.”

To illustrate his point, MML Director of Government
Relations Candace Donoho explained several specific pieces of legislation
promoted by the MML that did not make it through the legislature. For example,
the MML was supporting a bill that would have increased the amount of police
aid provided by the state to the towns by $600 per officer, but the increase
was cut to $150 per officer in the final version. Nonetheless, MML officials
were generally happy with the end result.

“We were very lucky to receive what we did,” said Donoho.
“We have to be pleased with the outcome.”

The MML took an official position on 52 bills in the
General Assembly this year, 32 of which the organization and 20 of which it
opposed. Of the 32 supported by the MML, 18 passed, and of the 20 the
organization opposed, only four passed. One of the bills the MML supported but
did not pass related to municipal electric aggregation, although state
lawmakers did agree to commission a study on the issue.

Another bill followed closely by the MML this year related
to the state’s Community Parks and Playgrounds Program, the funding for which
was slashed by state lawmakers. The governor’s original budget included $5
million for the program which would have been distributed to the towns, but the
final amount approved was reduced to just $1 million, which was divided into
four $250,000 projects.

“We really took a hit on that one,” said Donoho. “Many of
our member towns count on that funding for municipal parks and playground

Other bills of interest to Ocean City’s elected officials
and other officials from towns all over the state included the failed Green
Fund bill, which would have provided a revenue source based on fees for new
development that would have been applied to clean-up efforts for the Chesapeake
Bay. The bill was amended late in the game to include the coastal bays behind
Ocean City, but the legislation failed to pass.

Eminent domain is another issue taken up by the General
Assembly this year. Eminent domain is an important tool for municipalities in
purchasing private property for public use. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled
economic development was an acceptable application of eminent domain.

Another bill passed by the General Assembly this year will
tighten the residency requirements for eligibility for the Homestead Tax Cap.
Property owners whose property is their primary address are eligible for
protection from exorbitant increases in property taxes based on assessments,
while non-resident owners are afforded no such protection.

Donoho said the catalyst for the bill was the
proliferation of non-resident property owners claiming their second homes or
vacation homes as their primary residences. It’s an extremely important issue
in resort areas like Ocean City, where roughly 90 percent of all residential properties
are non-owner occupied.