Friday May 9 – Open Space Funds In Jeopardy

SNOW HILL – Maryland Program Open Space funds for Worcester County have been drastically reduced for this year, the county learned recently, and if Worcester County’s towns do not use their Project Open Space money from past years soon, they could lose it altogether.

“This is 89 percent less, unfortunately, than we received last year,” said Sharon Reilly, director of Worcester County’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Program Open Space awarded the county $147,800 for fiscal year 2009.

The county is allowed this year to use all the funds for development of open space, unlike last year, where it was required to spend at least a quarter of the funding on purchasing land for open space purposes, since the county has gone well beyond the Maryland state goal of 30 acres of park land per 1,000 persons.

“Worcester County’s done a good job of this. Worcester County’s got 196 acres of parkland per 1,000 citizens,” Reilly said.

Berlin, Snow Hill and Pocomoke City will not be getting any Open Space funds this fiscal year, as all three municipalities are behind in using funding awarded last year, and, in Berlin’s case, the year before that as well.

None of those three towns have completed and submitted the application to use the funds allocated them. Only Ocean City has finished its applications for recent funds.

The town of Berlin has $247,334 allocated; Snow Hill has $81,050; and Pocomoke City has $80,966.

According to the Parks and Recreation Department, all three towns have enough funding to complete at least their highest priority project.

Worcester County is one of the only counties in Maryland to routinely pass Program Open Space money through to municipalities. Some do so on a case-by-case basis, like Caroline and Talbot counties, but Caroline will not do so this year, and Talbot has not done so for several years.

Queen Anne and Somerset counties do not pass Program Open Space funds on at all.

The County Commissioners decided Tuesday morning to assign 84 percent of the FY09 funding to the county and 16 percent to Ocean City.

The FY09 funds will allow Worcester County to install a softball field at Newtown Park.  

If the other three towns do not submit their applications to use the Program Open Space money and use the funding by the opening of the General Assembly next year, the funds will go back into Worcester County coffers.

“This is being mandated from the state for us to do,” said Reilly.

Reminder letters will be sent to those municipalities.

“I recommend the municipalities be given a deadline of Aug. 1, 2008 to encumber their current balance funds and save them or they will revert back to the county,” Reilly said.

Applications must first go through the Parks and Recreation Department, next get Program Open Space approval and then be presented to the Maryland Board of Public Works.

“They’ve still got two or three months this year to spend this year’s allocation,” said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.

It looks bad for the county if the funding is not spent as it is received, according to Reilly.

“All of us have got to do a lot more credible job with the state,” she said.

Another change has mixed implications for Worcester County and the towns, with Maryland’s Community Parks and Playgrounds Grant now only offered to municipalities, not counties. This program can be used for a variety of park projects, not only playgrounds, and can come in substantial amounts up to over $200,000.