Friday, Sept 4–Cuts Leave Commissioners Facing ‘Drastic Decisions’

SNOW HILL – Budget cuts by the state of Maryland finalized last week slash over $2.5 million from Worcester County and municipality coffers, leaving elected officials wondering just how to handle the harsh reductions.

The Worcester County Commissioners will not be able to come up with a plan to handle their share of the reduction until fiscal year 2009 is closed out in October.

The county will lose $913,000 in state funds, $48,000 from police aid and $865,000 from highway user revenue. The highway user revenue cut reduces the county allocation of those funds to $96,000, a 90-percent cut.

“There’s some drastic decisions that have to be made,” said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.

Highway user revenue in 2008 reached $5.1 million, noted Commissioner Judy Boggs.

County towns lost $198,000 in police aid and $1.2 million in highway user revenue. The county’s health department will absorb $168,000 in cuts. The state also cut $90,000 from county funds for Wor-Wic Community College.

Cowger said that local state Delegates Jim Matthias and Norm Conway told him that the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) had approved the cut in road funds, instead of allowing the state to put responsibility for teacher pensions on the counties.

“That’s where all those cuts are coming from,” said Cowger.

Commissioner Judy Boggs, a MACo board member, said that does not mean the teacher pension issue has been resolved.

“The state wanted to cut lots of things. There’s still a lot of things hovering out there including teacher pensions,” Boggs said. 

Moving responsibility for funding local assessment offices was also on the table, county Administrator Jerry Mason said. The amount that had to be cut would not change, no matter where the cuts landed, he said.

The state has been cutting highway user revenue to the counties for years, said Mason.

“Next year I’m going to recommend zero budget [for roads] so there won’t be any surprise,” said Mason.

Boggs said MACo did not want the counties to be handed responsibility for teacher pensions, which could potentially mean thousands of dollars in added expensive to the county.

“Once designated to take over those responsibilities, you never lose them,” Boggs said.

Highway user revenue is generated through the gasoline tax, which is remitted back to the county where the gasoline was purchased.

“These are our people paying gas tax,” said Boggs.

Cowger said the state is using retained highway user revenues to buy up land and wetlands.

“You need to do that but not in these times,” said Cowger.

Boggs agreed with Cowger, adding, “The county has no control over how they [the state] designate their funds and our funds.”

Cowger suggested the county be bullish with the state.   

“We need to send those [unfunded] mandates back to the state and say, ‘we’re not doing this, we don’t have the funding,’” Cowger said.

How long can the state keep taking funding slated for the counties, Cowger wondered, expressing his displeasure with any elected official who felt the local cuts were appropriate.

“I don’t have the intent of voting for any one of the incumbents,” said Cowger.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley questioned how the Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW), which by law can cut up to 25 percent of the budget without approval from the General Assembly, was determining that percentage. To him, the BPW is lumping together two different funding sources, the Maryland gas tax revenue and the Maryland Department of Transportation.

“There’s absolutely nothing we can do about it,” said county attorney Sonny Bloxom. “The state holds all the cards.”

The taxpayers would have to revolt over the cuts to impact any change, Bloxom said.

“It is a very loose interpretation of the law,” Mason said.

Currently, three people on the BPW – Gov. Martin O’Malley, Treasurer Nacny K. Kopp, and Comptroller Peter Franchot – are making these decisions, not the Maryland General Assembly, Shockley pointed out.

Looming is the next fiscal year budget, which Mason considers the real problem. He expects that the state will attempt to shift responsibility for teacher pensions and the assessment office to the counties, which will not, Mason fears, be a temporary move.

“The General Assembly will go into session and God knows what will come out of that,” said Mason.

Boggs wondered what will happen when the federal stimulus funding, much of it directed to infrastructure, runs out.

“We’re filling holes but not potholes,” said Bloxom.

Mason said staff would present recommendations to the commissioners on how to handle last week’s announced cuts in October after the previous fiscal year is closed out.

“We’re going to turn over every rock,” Mason said.