Hours after a rare October winter storm dumped several inches of heavy, wet snow on Carroll County for most of Saturday, local municipal officials braved the weather and joined colleagues from Maryland cities and towns throughout the state at the Cambridge Hyatt Chesapeake Bay conference facilities for a three-day Maryland Municipal League fall legislative conference.
The Maryland Municipal League, an organization run by local officials from the 157 cities and towns from across the state, works as an advocate for municipalities throughout Maryland.
In recent years, much of MML advocacy has centered on restoring municipal-state shared revenues that have been reduced by the General Assembly in order to balance the beleaguered state budget.
With the controversial congressional redistricting special session of the General Assembly, Oct. 17- 19, already a distant distraction, elected officials from Maryland's cities and towns have their work cut out for them as they prepare for the upcoming regular session of the assembly in January 2012.
The economy has caused a prolonged reduction of revenues for governments across the state — at a time of increased demands on services.
The most pressing issue on the minds of municipal officials at the conference has been the matter of restoring funds that have been lost over the years because of problems in the state budget.
Other areas that appear to be on the minds of municipal officials are Maryland Department of Planning's PlanMaryland initiative, and the recent recommendation by the Maryland Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding that the state increase the gas tax by 15 cents per gallon.
Many municipal officials have expressed discomfort over the plethora of environmental mandates in the pipeline; of which many are unfunded — meaning that much more pressure on budgets that are already stretched to the maximum.
Unfunded mandates, environmental initiatives and a series of proposed tax and fee increases were very much on the minds of Taneytown Mayor Jim McCarron, Union Bridge Mayor Perry Jones, Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin and Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz as they gathered to compare notes between conference sessions on Monday.
"Municipalities have a lot on their plates these days," said Utz. "Good to get together and talk about it."
McCarron agreed. "We remain concerned about our reduced revenue stream. … I mean, how are we to provide - continue to provide - the services our citizens have come to expect without the state returning tax revenues to the municipalities."
"TMDL, WIP, HUR - Highway User Revenues … it's a full course of alphabet soup…," said Nevin, referring to the various environmental initiatives including Total Minimum Daily Load, and the Watershed Implementation Plan portion of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Watershed Restoration Implementation Strategy, which also includes National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
"And the current wave of initiatives — many of them (are) unfunded mandates that will impact every taxpayer and rate payer," said Jones.
"All tied together," added Nevin, "in a complex matrix that's going to cost a lot of money…"
"When we don't have it," added McCarron.
Each year, the MML chooses several priority issues that directly affect the future well-being of Maryland's cities and towns, and those who live in them.
This year, the MML's legislative committee considered 13 action requests. In the end, the committee chose to recommend that restoration of state-shared revenues, especially highway user revenues and police aid, be the "sole priority for the League in the coming 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly," according an MML press release.
In the upcoming months, the MML plans to work to see that these issues are introduced as legislation before the General Assembly, and then work to usher these initiatives through the legislative process.
While the MML's legislative agenda for the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session remains a priority of the conference, the training and educational get-together has been expanded in recent years to make it more like a "mini convention."
Last year the MML was successful in getting the General Assembly to reinstate 25 percent of the highway user fees that were budgeted to be taken away from local municipalities.
Just as critical are the cuts in police and public safety "to the majority of the 88 municipalities that provide police protection services to their communities have also totaled 35 percent in each of the past three fiscal years," according to information provided by the MML.
Many Carroll officials attending the conference said state budget cuts to municipalities in recent years could have easily caused much more damage to local governments if it had not been for the efforts of the MML working the hallways and offices of Annapolis during the legislative session.
"But we have our work cut out for us," said Utz.