Towns need their road funding

What if 95 percent of your road went unplowed during a snowstorm this winter? Or if only 5 percent of a pothole in front of your office was filled?

Members of the Maryland Municipal League — composed of 157 incorporated cities and towns and two special taxing districts in Maryland — have been dealing with a 95 percent cut in funding for road maintenance since early 2010. Now, as 2012 budget decisions are under way, many local leaders are left with few options to make ends meet and continue to be able to provide these essential, quality-of-life transportation services.

All municipalities have been affected, but hardest hit have been Maryland's historic small towns.

In the mountains of Garrett County, Deer Park Mayor Donald E. Dawson took it upon himself to plow his town's streets after last winter's debilitating snowstorms because the town did not have the money for a contractor to perform the work. Elsewhere in Garrett County, Friendsville has turned off half of its streetlights, and Loch Lynn Heights heated its Town Hall with a wood stove last winter to save on energy costs — just to keep operating for residents.

Since 2004, state aid for Berwyn Heights in Prince George's County has dropped from 20 percent to less than 3 percent of the town's budget. As a small town with about 3,000 residents, Berwyn Heights undertakes major road projects every few years. In 2009, the town completed engineering work on a $650,000 project to fix a road that was significantly damaged by underground water maintenance, only to have to postpone the project after the State Board of Public Works passed its most recent cuts.

Bel Air has about 10,000 residents. It took the town 20 years to achieve a regular road maintenance and public works and police vehicle replacement schedule. To be able to continue to fund these basic transportation-related services, the town has deferred its major capital improvement projects, including plans for a much-needed new Town Hall and police station.

The unfortunate financial circumstances play out like this for all of Maryland's municipalities. In fiscal year 2008, highway user revenues were fully funded at nearly $45 million. In April 2009, these revenues were reduced by 11 percent, then further drastically cut to just $6.1 million by the Board of Public Works in August 2009, after municipalities had already passed their budgets. In fiscal year 2011, it is estimated that only $1.6 million will be returned to Maryland's cities and towns.

A significant reduction in state police aid is also at issue for 88 Maryland municipalities that maintain their own police departments. In fiscal 2008, funding for municipal police aid was nearly $12.1 million. In fiscal 2011, it was reduced by 35 percent.

The Maryland Municipal League is asking the governor and the General Assembly to reinstate municipal funding for roads and police and to give municipalities more options for raising revenue. Unlike Maryland's counties (and Baltimore City), municipalities do not have the authority to levy transfer, recordation, energy or telecommunication taxes. Along with a return to 2008 levels of state funding, municipalities desperately need enabling legislative authority to utilize new revenue tools when there are changes in state funding in the future.

When a road is in disrepair, Marylanders expect their government to fix it. When several feet of snow pile on our region, Marylanders expect their government to plow them out. In a down economy, some state funding cuts must be made, but Maryland's municipalities are unfairly bearing the burden of continuing to fund basic quality-of-life services with little to no options to make up the difference.

Municipalities receive only two major sources of state aid: highway user revenues and police aid. While these two funding sources make up less than 1 percent of total state aid to county and municipal governments, they are significant sources of revenue at the municipal level.

The reality is that people in Maryland's municipalities contribute to funding the highway user revenue fund through the gas tax and other transportation-related fees. However, they are not seeing this revenue returned — as it was intended — to support the infrastructure of their local communities.

Gary Comegys, the Salisbury City Council vice president, is the Maryland Municipal League's 2010-11 president. E-mail: mml@mdmunicipal.org. For more information, visit http://www.mdmunicipal.org.

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