From Garrett County to the Eastern Shore, municipalities large and small are struggling to patch holes left in their road repair budgets after expected money from the Maryland Department of Transportation didn't show up.
Mayors and other local elected officials contend they had a commitment from Annapolis to reimburse them for projects such as paving roads and building sidewalks and that the state reneged on the deal.
Yesterday, those officials took their case directly to Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan at a General Assembly hearing yesterday that Flanagan denounced as an "ambush."
At issue was $28.5 million in local highway grants -- money that Flanagan insists isn't available but that legislative leaders and analysts insist he could provide. The tussle over the money, which has been going on behind the scenes for month, has turned into a round of finger-pointing between the Ehrlich administration and the General Assembly over who is to blame for the nonpayments.
The director of yesterday's political playlet was Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee and Flanagan's No. 1 nemesis.
Unbeknownst to the transportation chief, Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, invited dozens of mayors from around the state to appear at a hearing on the Transportation Department's budget. The officials were in Annapolis for an annual Maryland Municipal League lobbying event.
After lecturing Flanagan on the need to keep the business of filling potholes nonpartisan, Franchot -- who is running for the Democratic nomination for comptroller -- invited the mayors to stand and tell how the loss of state highway funds was hurting their citizens.
As Flanagan stewed at the witness table, mayors and local council members told stories of being denied $50,000 here or $200,000 there -- insignificant sums in a state budget measured in billions but in some cases one-fifth of a municipal transportation budget.
"You pulled the rug out from under us," said Thomas Cardinale, mayor of Berlin on the Eastern Shore. "Mr. Secretary, it's not fair."
Terence O'Hanley, commission chairman of Bel Air, said the state's failure to deliver $39,000 had cost the town 23 percent of its road budget.
"This is something we desperately need," he said. "Can we get a check today?"
After mayors from Bladensburg, Greenbelt, Frostburg, Brunswick, Marydel and other municipalities spoke, Flanagan asked for a chance to publicly explain why in his view he could not provide the money. Franchot said he could do so after the panel heard from its budget analysts.
Concerned that the mayors would not be there when he returned, Flanagan took his case to the hall outside. He told the mayors that legislators cut $48.5 million in projects from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget last spring, forcing him to choose between the highway user program and a Community Safety and Enhancement Program, once known as Streetscapes. He chose the latter.
"It's a case of you can't spend the same money twice," he said.
But back in the committee room, Flanagan's contention wasn't getting much support -- even from members of his own Republican Party.
John Martin, a budget analyst with the Department of Legislative Services, told the panel that the Transportation Department had "additional capacity there to find some money," and that the issue is "easily resolved by writing a check to the localities tomorrow."
"I don't disagree with that," said Del. George Edwards, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates and a member of the committee.
Edwards, who urged Flanagan to take a week to try to find the $28.5 million, said in an interview that he helped craft a bipartisan compromise at the end of last year's session that authorized the administration to send the highway user money to the municipalities in the form of grants. He said the dispute was "not a partisan issue."
Local officials "relied on it, and some of them have already budgeted the money," Edwards said.
Flanagan told the panel he would take another look at the department's coffers, but in an interview he did not hold out hope that the money could be found. He insisted the issue was partisan and called Edwards "a great guy" who had been "bamboozled on this one."
"Clearly the effort was made to mislead [the mayors] and to ambush me," Flanagan said, calling the hearing an effort to malign the Ehrlich administration. "I don't think it worked."
But Scott Hancock, executive director of the municipal league, said the mayors did not see their plea to Flanagan as an ambush.
"He may have been surprised to see them there, but the issue was certainly not a surprise to him," Hancock said.