Cumberland Times-News

January 4, 2013

‘Enough is enough,’ counties say to state

Len Lazarick

— CAMBRIDGE — After several years of pummeling by state government, through cuts in aid, offloading of state expenses and unfunded mandates, county officials gathered here for their annual conference believe that “enough is enough,” said Rick Pollitt, new president of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Facing the new session of the legislature next week, county officials want a re-prieve from any more damage flowing downhill from Annapolis.

Like many of the hundreds of elected and appointed officials here, Pollitt, the first county executive of Wicomico County on the lower Eastern Shore, can reel off the series of actions taken by the governor and the legislature to balance the state budget on the backs of county governments, which are just as hard-pressed by flat or declining revenues.

While money for schools has kept pace, funding for health departments and roads has been slashed.

The state has shifted half of its full funding to teacher pensions onto the counties, and reinforced requirements to maintain local funding for education.

The state also is forcing counties to impose new fees for storm-water management, and restrict expansion of septic systems that help fuel residential growth in some rural areas.

Counties have also been saddled with new federal requirements to reduce nutrients that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

The most serious loss for many local jurisdictions has been the $700 million cut to highway user revenues that were shifted into the general fund to bolster other programs, like school aid.

“That’s big. That was the most significant hit,” said Pollitt, a Democrat. For his own county, highway funding went from $7 million down to $200,000.

The counties fought those cuts, and also waged a losing battle against the shift of half of teacher pension costs and more stringent requirements for “maintenance of effort” on school funding.

“I’m not going to raise taxes just to pay for schools,” said Laura Price, a Republican member of the Talbot County Council.

While Talbot is considered one of Maryland’s wealthiest counties, due to the number of high-income residents with shore-front properties, Price said median incomes in Talbot County are actually below the state average.

“Teachers are very important, but they’re not more important than EMTs” and other public safety workers, Price said.

Elaine Kramer, chief financial officer for St. Mary’s County, said that other than schools, “we’re operating at 1999 staffing levels.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley emphasizes the continued payment of $5.6 billion in state aid for schools. But Kramer said, “They weren’t paying their fair share for all those years.” The counties were actually picking up the responsibility for school funding mandated in the state constitution.

But the legislature has also been piling other mandates onto county governments, particularly to reduce the flow of polluting nutrients into the Chesapeake Bay by restricting development on rural land, and other measures.

Pollitt said there is broad agreement across Maryland that “the Chesapeake is a national treasure.”

“There’s got to be a way to protect the Bay responsibly,” Pollitt said.

He said scientific experts differ on what is the most significant source of Bay pollution. Eastern Shore officials have recently pointed to the polluted sediment behind the Conowingo Dam at the mouth of the Susquehanna River as a major source of nutrients, particularly after major storms wash sediment from the river’s watershed in Pennsylvania.

Pollitt would like to see MACo “serve as a catalyst to bring the parties together on land use.”

“I’m bothered by the sharpness of the debate,” he said, and the conflicting views of experts with equally credible credentials. “Let’s get the right minds at the table and hammer things out.”