County urging delegation to retain Opportunity Scholarships

Allegany County officials are asking the Western Maryland Delegation to reconsider their effort to drop funding for the local Opportunity Scholarship program generated by revenue from Rocky Gap Casino Resort.

CUMBERLAND — Allegany County officials are asking the Western Maryland Delegation to reconsider its effort to drop funding for the local Opportunity Scholarship program.

Allegany County receives a 3.75% share of the revenue accrued each month from electronic gaming at Rocky Gap Casino Resort. Those funds are deposited into the Rocky Gap Local Impact Fund and subsequently dispersed to local nonprofits by Allegany County. The largest beneficiaries of the funding have been local fire and emergency medical service companies and the Allegany County Opportunity Scholarship Fund.

However, the funds allotted for the scholarship program may soon end if a bill submitted by the delegation passes.

Disbursements from the impact fund are determined by the area’s 15-member Local Development Council. Sen. George Edwards and Dels. Jason Buckel and Mike McKay — three of the four members that make up the Western Maryland Delegation — sit on the council along with 12 citizens largely from the area surrounding Rocky Gap. The Local Development Council is revising the way it distributes the Rocky Gap funds, with the likely result being more money going to fire and EMS companies while closing out the opportunity scholarships for prospective Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University students.

Buckel told the Times-News at the PACE Reception in January that, “A vote was taken earlier this year that will phase out the opportunity scholarship monies. I think it was about $100,000 (annually) divided between ACM and FSU. Eventually those monies will be repurposed."

Buckel said the agreement to fund the scholarship program was not meant to be in perpetuity.

“There was an agreement to fund scholarships for a certain period of time and it would probably be phased out over time," Buckel said. At the same time, the needs of fire and EMS companies are increasing, requiring additional funding, he said.

The scholarships averaged about $600 to $700 with "no evidence to suggest they have increased enrollment at local colleges," said Buckel.

Jake Shade, Allegany County Board of Commissioners president, sent a letter to Edwards, dated Feb. 6, requesting changes to the bill.

"I am requesting an amendment to Senate Bill 338," the letter said. "It has come to our attention that the funds used for the opportunity scholarships be phased out after this year to be used for other purposes. I believe this decision by the LDC is short-sighted and will be detrimental to our community."

Shade said the scholarships have "benefited many of our residents who receive workforce training, associate's or four-year degrees to further their education. I am optimistic that a solution can be found to preserve the scholarship program."

The total amount received annually from the Rocky Gap slots is roughly $2.5 million. The portion of proceeds received by Allegany County from gaming at Rocky Gap is less than other Maryland municipalities near casinos. Allegany County receives 3.75% of the gaming proceeds, where other municipalities in the state receive 5.5%. When a casino operator was being sought in 2013 for the Rocky Gap location, Allegany County was forced to take less to attract a bidder to locate in a rural location.

Shade said he would like the Senate bill to reflect a commitment to keep the scholarship funding in place.

"I am requesting that 5.25% go to local grants and an additional 0.25% go directly to an account established by the county to be disbursed to Allegany College of Maryland and Frostburg State University for the continuation of this scholarship."

Shade spoke about the issue at Thursday's regular county meeting.

"The decision (to end the funding) came as a surprise to all of us," said Shade. "That decision came from the LDC and not the board of commissioners. I would personally like to see the scholarships continued. I think they have a good impact on the community."

Commissioner Creade Brodie Jr. spoke to the Times-News after the county meeting.

"We would like to see them massage (the bill) in some way to keep this opportunity for our local county students," said Brodie. "We used to hear it was only $500, $600 or $700 but there's a lot of people in this area that think that is a significant amount of money. I know when my one son was going to college he would have been very appreciative of that." 

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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