By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – County officials sharply criticized Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s proposed budget Thursday for slashing more than $160 million in aid to local governments still reeling from last year’s cuts.
“(Ehrlich) avoided making the tough decisions and presented a pass-the-buck budget,” said David Weaver, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan.
The largest cut is a $51 million reduction in highway funds distributed to counties for local roads, which comes on top of $51 million sliced by the General Assembly last session to take affect this year.
The lost transportation funds are hitting large and small counties alike, said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.
To underscore the magnitude of the cuts, Bliden pointed out that the lost highway funds in Garrett County exceed the county’s entire snow removal budget.
“The deferral of maintenance will have a devastating impact on highway infrastructure,” Bliden said.
Ehrlich unveiled his $23.8 billion budget Wednesday, which includes a record $326 million increase for public schools. However, the budget was balanced largely through one-time revenue sources and Democratic lawmakers say Ehrlich, by refusing to raise sales or income taxes, is dodging the state’s long term fiscal woes.
Ehrlich’s budget also cuts $30 million in grants to certain counties intended to offset the loss of property tax revenue prompted by mandated lower property tax rates near electric company power plants. Anne Arundel, Calvert and Prince George’s Counties, which receive the bulk of the funds, were especially hard hit.
Calvert County’s $6 million loss in utility grants essentially erases the county’s tax hikes last year, Bliden said.
Prince George’s County is taking a double hit, he said. Because Mirant, Inc., which operated a power plant there, went bankrupt, it could not pay the $14 million it owed in property taxes, plus the county now stands to lose $7.7 million in lost utility grant revenue.
“People in Annapolis brag about funding Thornton, but it’s a ruse because they’re cutting aid to the counties,” Bliden said.
Ehrlich’s budget also cut $10 million in county aid earmarked for teacher pay raises and $13 million from funds to help counties buy and maintain land for parks.
After last year’s cuts, which totaled $185 million, 10 counties raised taxes, and Ehrlich’s cuts may force another round of tax hikes, Bliden said.
Neil Bergsman, budget analysis director at the state Department of Budget and Management, said county officials should be relieved the cuts were not deeper. Except for public schools and Medicaid, every part of the state budget is feeling the cuts, Bergsman said.
“Local governments need to make some tough decisions to balance their budgets just like we did,” Bergsman said.
The new influx of state cash for county school systems satisfies what county officials have long said is their top priority, Bergsman added.
Although Duncan raised Montgomery County taxes last year to make-up for lost state revenue, he has ruled that out this year, Weaver said.
“We’ll just have to make some painful cuts.”