By Rolando Garcia
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s mayors said Thursday they’ll be forced to increase taxes and cut spending on roads, parks and police without wholesale changes to Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s budget, which cut local aid by more than $160 million.
They also pressed for legislation that to allow cities to impose restaurant and car rental taxes to replace lost state funding.
“We’re where the rubber meets the road,” said Barrie Tilghman, mayor of Salisbury. “We can’t pass our budget problems down to someone else.”
Salisbury, which lost $400,000 in road money last year and is slated to lose that much this year, will likely have to raise taxes to make up the difference, Tilghman said.
Ehrlich’s $23.8 billion budget closes the state’s $800 million shortfall mostly through one-time revenue sources and spending cuts. Among the hardest hit were local governments, which will lose $102 million in highway funds alone.
After last year’s cuts, nearly one-fifth of Maryland’s 157 towns and cities raised property taxes, more than a third had to increase fees and nearly half had to delay road repair and other construction programs, according to the Municipal League.
“We’ve done our part, now the state needs to step up and do their part,” said North Beach Mayor Mark Frazier, Municipal League president.
Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty said her city not only had to delay street repairs, but scrimped on park maintenance, resulting in shabby-looking spaces with unkempt grass.
Havre de Grace chose to raise property taxes for the first time in nearly two decades, rather than lay off 15 of its 100 employees, said Mayor David Craig.
That left Havre de Grace with enough workers to clear debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel and enough police officers to handle a spike in drug arrests. But the town cannot afford another tax hike, Craig said.
The Municipal League is supporting a bill to allow cities to impose a 1 percent restaurant tax and another bill to charge a $5 fee to rent a car. Counties and cities would share 40 percent of the rental car revenue, and the rest would be earmarked for the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.
Although the Legislature has been reluctant to empower local governments to tax, mayors are hoping the budget crunch will change that, said Scott Hancock, Municipal League executive director.
“We’re testing the waters,” Hancock said.
Ehrlich has pledged to oppose new taxes and favors legalizing slot machines to help solve the state’s fiscal problems.
In balancing their budgets, the mayors will have to make the same tough choices the governor made in balancing the state budget, said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver.
“I would hope those local officials (complaining about lost state funding) would support the governor’s slots legislation,” DeLeaver said.
Ehrlich has proposed legalizing slot machines at four Maryland racetracks and at two, unnamed sites along the Interstate 95 corridor, with much of the state’s take devoted to education.
But the mayors showed little consensus about what the state should do to fix the budget.
Frazier said slots should be part of a comprehensive package that also includes new revenue measures.
Craig said he wouldn’t want slots in his community, and that a 1 cent increase in the sales tax is the best solution.