County leaders play defense against local aid cuts
Appeals go out to delegations
They've laid off or furloughed employees, dipped into their reserve funds and stopped some government programs in order to stay afloat, and now county leaders say they will work to prevent further cuts to their state aid.
The best way to do that, they say, is painting a bleak picture of county finances for lawmakers and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
Many have written letters to their delegations asking for support, and county executives were in Annapolis for the start of the 90-day General Assembly session Wednesday to make personal appeals.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he began playing defense against cuts to local aid before the session began, and others have done likewise.
However, it will be impossible to spare counties from state budget cuts for fiscal 2011, O'Malley told reporters Wednesday. The state is facing a $2 billion budget shortfall.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach has championed calls for the counties to shoulder a larger share of budget cuts. He also supports shifting to the counties some or all of the cost of teachers' pensions, which currently falls to the state.
Maryland's counties and Baltimore city are facing certain cuts to state aid in fiscal 2011, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.
"My sense is there may be a scramble for who gets cut the least," Nataf said. "I don't see how it's going to be feasible for (the state) to hold constant on local aid."
In August, O'Malley cut $454 million from the state's fiscal 2010 operating budget, including $210 million in aid to counties.
"Almost the entirety of our state funding has been eliminated already," said Frederick Board of County Commissioners President Jan H. Gardner (D) of Frederick.
Frederick County lost about $10 million in the August cuts and a total of $20 million in the past year, she said. The county has reduced its budget by $45 million in fiscal 2010, but still faces a $26.8 million budget hole in fiscal 2011.
"We simply cannot absorb additional cuts without having a major impact to central services," Gardner said.
The Frederick County Commissioners have written to their state delegation asking to be spared from further cuts and also for the county's highway funding to be restored.
About $160 million of the August state budget reduction came from the Highway User Fund, which is spent on road maintenance. Frederick County's share was $8 million 90 percent of its original allocation.
Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said he expects fiscal 2011 to be another tough year for counties, and that county leaders are eager to see O'Malley's budget proposal, which is due later this month.
"We're just trying to hold on and continuing to deliver the most essential services," he said. "That's the sort of decisions that most counties are facing. What can they come up with to keep their budget afloat for one more year?"
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. (D) said he will not request any bond bills or capital projects in O'Malley's fiscal 2011 budget to show that he understands the state's financial crisis.
However, Smith said it's unlikely that Baltimore County or any other jurisdiction will escape further cuts in fiscal 2011.
"Local jurisdictions are expecting to participate in the pain, as they say, and the question is really how much and in what fashion," he said.
In Montgomery County, where Leggett is facing a $608 million shortfall in fiscal 2011, the County Council already has approved $30 million in midyear budget cuts and is considering another $70 million proposed by the county executive.
Now, Leggett says he'll work with his local delegation in Annapolis to "play defense" against further cuts in state aid.
"We're fighting aggressively," he said. "We're not expecting any cuts. We're going to resist extremely hard and vigorously to prevent any additional cuts."
That includes sending a state lobbyist to Annapolis and working in collaboration with state lawmakers representing Montgomery County, he said.
"I'm working with other county executives and members of the General Assembly to discuss what we think is relevant to Montgomery County and how we can work together," Leggett said.
There is mutual interest among the counties in preserving state funding for transportation, education and other areas, he said.
"We'll continue to fight," Leggett said. "And I think we cannot take anything for granted anymore."
However, Nataf says it might be useless for the counties to resist what he sees as an inevitable loss of state money.
Forty percent of the state's budget goes to local aid, he said, and allowing that portion to go untouched would mean that the remaining 60 percent of the budget assumes even greater losses.
Smith said that Baltimore County and other jurisdictions have lost significant revenue from property and income taxes because of decreased property assessments and high unemployment a fact that O'Malley should consider when determining state aid to local governments.
In Howard County, property tax assessments are down 23 percent on average, and County Executive Ken Ulman is making sure that lawmakers know it.
"I'm painting the picture of why we're in a tough position," he said. "I'm making sure that folks understand the impact of the latest round of (property) assessments."
Ulman said he also has been strategizing with leaders statewide including at the MACo winter conference last week on how to push back on possible cuts.
"With an open dialogue, we are hoping we can be somewhat protected," he said. "We're in very tough times, and I hope state legislators understand that as they try to balance their budget."
"I encourage them to look at not piling on the counties," he added.