Gov. Martin O'Malley wants to spend nearly $23 million to improve Maryland's often-maligned state parks, proposing widespread renovations for a system that critics say has been deteriorating for more than a decade.
The money would go toward highly visible projects at some of the state's most visited public spaces. Among other improvements, it would renovate shabby bathhouses at Assateague State Park near Ocean City, repair the lighthouse complex and parking lots at Point Lookout in Southern Maryland, and replace a fishing pier at North Point State Park that was severely damaged by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.
The governor made his announcement Friday at wind-swept Sandy Point State Park along the Chesapeake Bay, where $4.2 million of the new spending would renovate boat ramps, install solar panels on park buildings, improve stormwater management and create a "natural playground."
"For the last many years, we have been under-investing in the infrastructure that is our state parks," O'Malley said, with the Bay Bridge in the background. The new money, he said, would help to upgrade play areas, curb runoff of pollutants and improve trails across the state.
"Tourism is an important part of our economy," he said. "No one else is going to make these capital investments for us."
The money will be included in the capital budget proposal O'Malley submits to the General Assembly, which has the final say. The proposal would largely be funded by increased state borrowing.
The improvement plan was lauded by parks enthusiasts and blasted by critics who say the Democratic governor is spending too much money.
Kristin Saunders Evans, an assistant secretary at the Department of Natural Resources, called the $23 million figure "huge."
"It's about fourfold what we usually would see," she said.
Tim Casey, president of the Friends of Maryland State Forests and Parks, said the infusion would go a long way toward cutting into a backlog of maintenance projects.
"It's really a very good chunk out of it," he said. "This is really quite a positive step for the parks."
But a leading Republican criticized the increased debt that would pay for the work.
"He's taking from the capacity of the next generation to pay for his pet projects today," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell of Calvert County. "Unfortunately, it's very close to generational theft."
He said issuing more bonds would put added pressure on the state to raise its property tax, which is dedicated to debt service.
O'Malley argued the investment is worth it, saying the parks projects would create 300 jobs. His proposal is in keeping with his stated intention to accelerate capital projects to spur employment as Maryland is struggling to recover jobs lost in the economic downturn.
Maryland state parks attract 11 million visitors a year and generate $650 million in economic activity, O'Malley said. He predicted each $1 spent on the parks would produce a return of $25.
"These are dollars that are leveraged," he said.
The allocation would be a small part of Maryland's total capital budget of roughly $1 billion, but advocates said it was an important investment for a parks system that has been operated on a shoestring.
The spending boost is a delayed response to a 2007 report that identified a "state of crisis" in the state park system because of a mounting maintenance backlog after spending fell to less than $1 million a year early in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He restored some funding later in his term.
The study prompted O'Malley to increase spending to about $20 million early in his first term, but that number fell to less than $6 million in the 2010-2012 budget years after the economy went into a tailspin.
Casey, who also serves as chairman of the state Parks Advisory Commission, said that in some recent years Maryland could do little more than put temporary patches on leaking roofs in park buildings. Over time, he said, it cost more to do the temporary fixes than a long-term repair.
He said renovation of the Assateague bathhouses, at a cost of $2.1 million, is an example of a project that is overdue.
"They look shabby," Casey said. "You're going to see urinals and/or commodes that are sometimes broken. You're going to see water leaks," he said. "They were nasty enough for us to get complaints from people who were visiting the parks."
The North Point fishing pier, open but in severe disrepair for almost a decade, will be replaced with a handicapped-accessible structure for $1.9 million, Saunders Evans said.
Other money would go to a variety of projects around the state — from $1.9 million for the Western Maryland Rail Trail to $2.7 million toward the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Dorchester County. Saunders Evans said most of the projects slated for funding are "shovel-ready."
Of the $23 million, $14 million would come from a pot of $150 million in increased borrowing capacity approved by state spending authorities last month.
The additional $150 million — which comes on top of a previously planned $925 million — was approved by Maryland's Debt Affordability Committee over the dissent of Comptroller Peter Franchot, who said the state cannot afford the spending. A separate General Assembly panel that oversees spending signed off on the plan despite Republican objections.
Administration officials said the increased borrowing in next year's budget would not violate guidelines and would be offset by borrowing less in the future. Essentially, the money is a deduction from the 2018 budget year, in which previous plans to borrow $1.2 billion have been trimmed to $1.05 billion.
So far, O'Malley has announced his intention to allocate roughly $100 million of new borrowing to school construction, $15 million to rental housing development and $14 million to the state parks. Roughly $20 million in spending has yet to be announced but will likely involve environmental projects such as storm water and sewer improvements, according to O'Malley chief of staff Matt Gallagher.
O'Malley said the accelerated capital spending is made possible in part because Maryland holds a top credit ranking for its bonds.
"It is the right, the sound, the proper use of that AAA bond rating," he said. "We want to build things with these capital projects that will last."
In addition to the $14 million in new borrowing, the state is using $8.7 million that was already in the pipeline from real estate transfer tax collections.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the spending would have a "significant" impact on improving parks.
"While we're doing something for our parks, we're also employing people, so it's kind of a win-win situation," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun