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Baltimore park projects to get state grants Hogan administration withheld in error

Baltimore will get more than $1 million worth of money for park projects that Gov. Larry Hogan withheld in error as part of a budget dispute with state lawmakers. The grants for Baltimore parks include $250,000 for Cylburn Arboretum, shown in this May 8, 2019, file photo.
Baltimore will get more than $1 million worth of money for park projects that Gov. Larry Hogan withheld in error as part of a budget dispute with state lawmakers. The grants for Baltimore parks include $250,000 for Cylburn Arboretum, shown in this May 8, 2019, file photo. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore will get more than $1 million of state money for park projects that Gov. Larry Hogan withheld in error as part of a budget dispute with state lawmakers.

The $1.265 million in grants will be spread among seven projects across the city.

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The park grant money was part of $245 million from the state’s $46 billion budget that the Republican governor declined to spend.

As part of the budget process, lawmakers in the Democrat-led General Assembly can set money aside in the state budget, stipulating that it be spent on certain projects and programs. The budget is legally required to be balanced each year.

Hogan, as governor, has the authority to either spend that money — known as “fenced-off funds” — for the designated purposes or leave it unspent. He chose not to spend any of money, accusing lawmakers of being “reckless” by inserting it into the budget.

But the Hogan administration incorrectly identified the park grants as fenced-off funds. Now, the money is being released.

The grants are part of Program Open Space, which gets money from a transfer tax on real estate sales. The funds are used to buy and improve parkland.

Nicholas Pepersack, a spokesman for the state Department of Budget and Management, said the agency’s staff reviews the final budget each year and notes where lawmakers have “added directive language about how money should be spent.” The agency incorrectly put the Program Open Space money in that category, he said.

“Upon further review, we noticed that the POS language was miscategorized,” Pepersack said in a statement. “As such, the funds were never actually restricted and are now being distributed consistent with program rules and guidelines.”

Pepersack described the withholding of the parks money as “an innocent mistake arising from a minor staff error.”

Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said she noticed the Program Open Space money was improperly withheld. McIntosh, a Democrat, said she had her staff reach out to the state attorney general, whose staff, in turn, advised the Hogan administration to release the money. After some back-and-forth, McIntosh said, “everybody agreed these were not fenced-off funds.”

McIntosh also believes that some highway money is being withheld in error, but Pepersack said the administration disagrees.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor supports Program Open Space and noted the governor has fully funded the program.

“If partisan legislators stopped playing shell games with the budget and critical programs, we wouldn’t have this kind of confusion,” Ricci said in a statement.

Sen. Cory McCray, meanwhile, had asked officials at the Department of Natural Resources about the fate of the Program Open Space grants for Baltimore. Only the city’s Program Open Space grants appeared on the list of fenced-off funds.

McCray said he was “encouraged” to learn the state would release the money for the parks.

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"We made progress in the right direction for standing up for our neighborhoods,” said McCray, a Baltimore Democrat.

The grants for Baltimore parks are:

  • $500,000 for the Henrietta Lacks Educational Park, formerly known as Ambrose Kennedy Park.
  • $250,000 for Garrett Park.
  • $250,000 for the Cylburn Arboretum.
  • $150,000 to create a park for the Racheal Wilson Memorial for Fallen Firefighters.
  • $50,000 for Warwick Park.
  • $50,000 for Bond Street Park.
  • $15,000 for Johnston Square Green Space.

McCray said Democratic lawmakers are still urging the governor to release the remaining fenced-off funds.

“I am thankful for every neighbor and community leader who helped us to amplify the conversation around the $245 million in unreleased funds, that despite them having an immediate positive impact on our communities, were kept from us,” he said.

Shortly after the state’s budget year started July 1, Hogan said he would not spend any of the fenced-off money, which included funds for school construction, a youth summer jobs program in Baltimore, the financially struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, technology upgrades for the Baltimore Police Department, testing of backlogged rape kits, salary increases for correctional officers and a smattering of other programs.

Hogan said at the time it would be a bad financial move to spend the money when the state is facing a budget shortfall of about $960 million for the next budget year.

Hogan directed state agencies to comb through their budgets to find money to pay for a few of the public health and safety programs, including the rape kit testing and police technology.

Pepersack said state agencies are “working to fulfill the governor’s directive,” but did not provide any details.

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