State Budget Woes Lead To Worcester Losing $2.6M

BERLIN – The other shoe dropped this week when Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley announced the latest round of state budget cuts totaling $450 million, highlighted by $210 million in cuts to local aid to the counties including nearly $2.6 million for Worcester.

In July, O’Malley announced $280 million in state budget cuts across the board in Maryland with the promise of more to come as the state continues to wrestle with its growing deficit. That promise was fulfilled on Tuesday when the governor announced $450 million in new budget cuts, a large percentage of which, $210 million, fall on the backs of the local jurisdictions.

“These are not easy decisions,” he said. “Just as families, businesses and individuals across Maryland struggle to find ways to tighten their belts, our state government must do more with less.”

The cuts are broken down into four major areas including aid to local health departments, police departments, community colleges and highway user revenues, with the latter taking the largest hit. The latest round of cuts don’t include any reductions for public education, widely considered the sacred cow in terms of being off limits for further spending reductions.

O’Malley said this week he understands the latest cuts effect fundamental government services. He also said the cuts will be coupled with a continued effort to maintain an efficient state government.

“Our citizens expect and deserve a government that works, and in spite of the most severe recession in a generation, we’ve been working to reform our state government to make it more efficient and effective.”

In Worcester, the total amount of reductions came in at just under $2.6 million across several categories. From an initial state allocation of $6.3 million, a total of $2.6 million was lopped off, resulting in a new allocation of roughly $3.7 million, representing a 40-percent reduction.

The biggest reduction for Worcester came in the highway user revenue category, where 90 percent of the anticipated allocation was cut. In the initial allocation, Worcester was set to receive $2.3 million in highway user revenues, but $2.1 million was cut this week, resulting in a new allocation of just under $232,000. Highway user revenues are used to maintain county roads, remove snow, cut grass and fill potholes, etc.

The average cut in highway user revenues across the state was 52 percent. However, it’s important to note nearly every jurisdiction in Maryland received a 90 percent cut in highway user revenues, except for Baltimore City, which received a 19-percent cut in the funding source.

State aid to local health was cut this week by $168,509, or from $481,453 to $312,944, representing a 35-percent reduction. Similarly, local police aid was cut from $703,956 to $457,571, also a 35-percent reduction. Finally, just about $90,000 was cut from Worcester’s community college allocation, which affects the county’s contribution to Wor-Wic Community College.

County officials knew the second round of state budget cuts in local aid were coming, but a few were taken aback by the extent of the reductions. Commissioner Virgil Shockley said he learned from discussions at the recent Maryland Association of Counties (MAC0) convention in Ocean City, and through private discussions, the cuts to Worcester would come in at around $1.5 million to $2 million, and was a little surprised to learn the final total was more like $2.6 million.

“At what point do we stop robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “They have just passed the burden on to the counties.”

Commissioner Bud Church agreed the announced cuts were a little more than county officials anticipated, but was not surprised by the final total. Church said the latest round of cuts appear worse than they are because in most of the targeted areas, the reductions are merely passed through the county to the appropriate state agency.

“The bad news is, we’re getting the cuts and they are worse than what we anticipated,” he said. “The good news is, a lot of these cuts are just pass-throughs for us. Yes, it’s bad, but I guess it’s not as bad as it could be.”

Nonetheless, the cuts are no less palatable for Worcester and the other local jurisdictions because they will likely have to be made up with local funds where possible in order to ensure the same level of services for citizens.

“The problem is, they keep robbing the piggybank,” said Church. “Pretty soon, the piggybank is going to be looking around for somebody to rob.”

Because the latest round of cuts target public health, police aid and highway user revenues, Shockley voiced concern about the local state agencies targeted by the latest round of cuts.

“Public health and public safety are being put at risk to preserve something else,” he said. “Those are government’s first priorities, plain and simple. What happens when nobody answers 911. If you cut so much from one side, it becomes a very real possibility that things can get out of hand quickly.”

Shockley said the cuts in state aid would make it difficult, but not impossible, for the county to balance its own budget.

“We’ll get all the numbers and then we’ll go back and see where we absorb these cuts,” he said. “We’ll deal with it, we’ll survive it. In the current county budget, there is very little room for maneuvering. We already took money from one department and moved it to another to make sure things keep running.”

However, with the county budget already cut to the quick, maintaining the level of service county residents expect in some areas will be difficult.

“We’re going to have to learn to make do with less, but maintain the efficiency we currently have in place,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to do 100 percent of everything. The grass along the highway might not get cut, and those potholes might not get fixed.”

Church said the cuts announced this week appear to be even-handed across the state. He also said they might be foreboding of what is yet to come.

“I just see it getting worse before it gets any better,” he said. “These cuts are going on all over the state, but some areas seem to be getting hit harder than others.”