County Program Open Space Funding Slashed

SNOW HILL — The County Commissioners were less than pleased to learn the county and its municipalities were scheduled to receive just over $101,000 in Program Open Space funds from the state out of the $10.3 million requested locally and the $23 million plus set to be awarded to jurisdictions across Maryland.

Worcester County Recreation and Parks Department Director Sharon Reilly on Wednesday presented the proposed fiscal year 2012 Program Open Space (POS) plan, a wish list of sorts from the county and its municipalities for state funding assistance for acquisition and development funds for recreational opportunities. Counties and towns across Maryland submit POS plans to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for approval each year.

POS grant funding is derived from a percentage on the real estate transfer tax collected from each county and the funds are then dispersed to the individual jurisdictions based on their submitted funding requests.

In Worcester, state POS funds are generally distributed to the county, which, in turn, allocates the funds to each of its four municipalities based on individual requests and needs. In other jurisdictions, municipalities often submit their own POS requests directly to the state.

“This is just the way we’ve always done it in Worcester,” said Reilly. “Our county over the years has always been good about sharing the funds with the municipalities.”

However, this year the county might not be able to be as generous as it has in the past. Of the roughly $10.3 million requested by Worcester County and its four towns, the county is expected to receive just over $101,000 in state POS in the coming fiscal year.

“You can see a big difference in what we asked for and what we’re getting,” Reilly said.

To add further insult to injury, Worcester’s estimated $101,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the $23.4 million expected to be allocated to jurisdictions across Maryland in 2012, a slight not lost on the county’s elected officials.

“Roughly $23.4 million is what the state is granting this year and we’re getting $101,000?” asked Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “What percentage is that? We’re one of 24 jurisdictions vying for $23.4 million and we’re getting $101,000?”

Reilly explained the state funding is based on the real estate transfer tax. During the real estate boom several years ago now, Worcester and most counties in Maryland received considerably more POS funding each year, but the funds have dried up in the ongoing recession and its subsequent impact on real estate.

For example, the $101,677 expected to be approved for Worcester in fiscal year 2012 is about 40 percent less than the $170,000 the county received last year. Nonetheless, county officials were surprised to learn Worcester was receiving such a small amount.

“Do we put more money into the program than we get back?” asked Commission President Bud Church.

County Attorney Sonny Bloxom assured the commissioners even in the current sluggish real estate market Worcester was contributing more than its share in real estate transfer taxes.

“I guarantee we put more into state transfer tax than $101,000, even in a down economy,” he said.

Reilly told the commissioners despite the relatively low allocation, Worcester is still exceeding by far the state’s recommendations for recreational, open space for its residents and visitors. The state’s goal for its jurisdictions is 30 acres of parks and recreational areas for every 1,000 residents. Based on a recent inventory, Worcester County has 196 acres of recreation areas for every 1,000 residents.