ANNAPOLIS – The state budget office Wednesday was forced to recall a memo to Maryland cities and towns warning of a 10 percent cut to police funding, after an executive with the Maryland Municipal League called Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s office.
The memo, the executive learned, was utterly false, and many Maryland cities and towns were needlessly alarmed.
“I’m pleased this pain isn’t going to be inflicted on municipalities,” said Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League.
“What concerns me is that, if representatives from cities and towns hadn’t called me about it, I wouldn’t have known that it was happening and called the governor’s office, who knows how long this could have gone on?” he said.
The letter from the Department of Budget and Management dated Sept. 3 alerted mayors and councils of a possible 10 percent reduction in State Aid for Police Protection during the second half of this fiscal year. It was sent to county councils, mayors, town councils and police chiefs this week.
Bill Ingersoll, Chestertown manager, had just placed copies of the memo in town council members’ mailboxes Wednesday when he received word that it was a mistake.
“If they had seen the memo, I’m sure it would have falsely alarmed them,” Ingersoll said, “Any budget cuts hurt us because we are so strapped this year. When I saw the memo, I thought this is more of the same, more bad news.”
The “news” in the memo hit just as municipalities are already coping with a 30 percent reduction in state highway revenues, the main source of state aid for municipalities, said Hancock.
A municipal league survey of 112 Maryland cities and towns found that 48 percent had to dip into reserve funds and 14 percent reduced or eliminated services.
Many cities and towns are worried that state aid may be reduced even further during the coming fiscal year, in which Maryland faces a budget deficit of $800 million, Hancock said.
According to the memo, the local police, or SAPP funding, would be withheld until the Department of Budget and Management determined there is enough money in the overall budget to distribute it.
When Barrie P. Tilghman, mayor of Salisbury, got word that her city stood to lose $49,000 in SAPP funds this spring, she mentally calculated what that would mean for her already cash-strapped police force.
“That’s two squad cars. Or a mid-level sergeant’s salary,” she said.
Salisbury receives about $500,000 of its $7 million police budget from SAPP, which is distributed among cities, towns and counties by population and size of police force.
Tilghman then predicted that the city would make up the difference by reducing overtime hours for its 72 police officers.
“We really depend on those officers taking the time to police some of our more fragile neighborhoods,” she said.
“I’m certainly very pleased that this has been much ado about nothing. We passed a very bare bones prioritized budget, it was going to be very hard to make some tough choices,” Tilghman said.
Salisbury had already raised property taxes 8 percent and it would have been difficult to do that again to make up for the shortfall, she said.
Smaller cities and towns would have been especially hard hit if the cuts had come through because they benefit more from the funding than larger cities. A few may receive up to half of their funding through the program, Hancock said.
Ingersoll is skeptical that there will not eventually be more cuts, if not in this program, then in another area.
“They cut state highway user funds last year,” Ingersoll said, “It’s no surprise that there might be cuts in police aid funds. We budgeted lean in Chestertown this year, just to be safe.”
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