As More Snow Falls, Debate Continues Over State Aid to Counties

Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – As repeated snowfalls further erode county road budgets already decimated by large-scale state cuts, some legislators nonetheless feel counties have yet to bear the brunt of the economic downturn.

Officials at many counties say they have needed to reduce services, lay off or furlough employees or dip into reserve funds to cover the 95-percent cuts they saw in state highway user revenue funding over the summer — even before this winter’s first record snowfall in December.

“If the state had left us alone, we’d be fine. But unfortunately their problem became ours,” said John Borders, county administrator for Queen Anne’s County.

Queen Anne’s has laid off 22 employees and cut back on its capital projects during the 2010 fiscal year of July 2009 through this June. The county is further considering placing the burden of snow removal on side streets onto the shoulders of the streets’ residents.

Some state officials counter that for every budget cut made by Maryland’s county governments, the state has had to do even more.

“We’re both in horrible shape, but the state has been worse off longer,” said Warren Deschenaux, who briefs the General Assembly on the state budget. “Counties have been able to maintain their commitments to employees until fairly recently.”

More than 200 state employees have been laid off in the current fiscal year, and those who remain have needed to take furlough days. Only seven of Maryland’s 23 counties have had both layoffs and furloughs, and nine have had neither.

“We’ve not had to do anything drastic yet,” said St. Mary’s County Administrator John Savich. “So far we’ve not flat-out eliminated anything, so it’s probably just that some things are taking a little bit longer. I think that’s really it.”

In Cecil County, budget director Craig Whiteford said employees were hardest hit by stricter thermostat policies: a 74-degree maximum for the county offices this winter.

“Of all the things we’ve done, it’s probably the most controversial, internally,” Whiteford said, adding that any layoffs or furloughs “would be an option of last resort.”

Other counties have cut back more, with Montgomery cutting bus lines and Worcester slashing its health department services, and most have reduced or eliminated non-emergency road resurfacing.

Delegate John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, said the cost-cutting measures the state government has seen are even more drastic.

“We’re all sympathetic to the difficulties local governments are having … but we’ve taken some tough actions. We’ve taken very difficult reductions,” Bohanan said. “Our state agencies have taken a much larger whack than local governments.”

Some county officials have argued, however, that they have avoided severe cuts by being simply better prepared than the state for the economic downturn.

“No county should be penalized for sound fiscal management,” Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold said.
County officials may have an ally in Gov. Martin O’Malley, who previously served as the mayor of Baltimore. O’Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec said in a written statement Thursday that the governor remains committed to funding local governments.

“As a former mayor, Governor O’Malley understands the importance of state assistance in building and maintaining a budget,” the statement said.

O’Malley’s position was attacked early in the legislative session by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Calvert, who told the Baltimore Sun last month that the governor’s “gallantry” in maintaining county funding has been harmful to the state and “cannot continue.”

Even as snow removal budgets stretch increasingly thinner across the state, Miller maintained that same sentiment when he spoke Wednesday to reporters.

“I don’t see what snow has to do with it … everything needs to be cut,” Miller said. “Nothing can be sacred when you have to balance a budget.”

But cutting aid to counties is merely a politically palatable method of cutting spending for education and health, said Delegate Murray Levy, D-Charles, a former Charles County Commissioner President.

“The counties are also responsible for funding these (programs),” Levy said. “When we cut the county, we cut public education, community college, health and libraries — and we do it beneath the radar.”

After all, a struggling county facing an immediate need must take money from somewhere, Levy said.

“Nobody wants to hear about a fiscal problem when there’s a foot of snow on the streets,” he said. “The issues which counties deal with affect people on a very immediate level.”

The state, too, is struggling with the snow that has already fallen on its highways this winter and must now deal with an additional major snowfall this weekend, said state Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, speaking Wednesday to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

The state has budgeted $60 million to remove snow from state roads and other transportation facilities this winter and had already spent $54 million as of Tuesday night, Swaim-Staley said. Repairing roads damaged by the weather will force further spending this spring, she added.

But if, as will likely happen this weekend, the Department of Transportation exceeds its snow removal budget, it’s not clear how the state will close the gap. Andrea Mansfield, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said she hopes the state doesn’t take that money out of counties as they scramble to “juggle” their own budgets in the wake of multiple snowstorms.

“I’d say we feel that we’ve taken our fair share of reductions,” Mansfield said. “We’re working hard to protect what we have.”