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Municipal league wants road funds restored

An organization representing 159 Maryland municipalities is calling for a full and immediate restoration of state funding earmarked for road projects and a lockbox that would guarantee funding in future years.

“We’ve been fighting this for years,” said Carl Anderton Jr., president of the Maryland Municipal League and mayor of Delmar, an incorporated municipality in Wicomico County with a population of about 3,100. “The loss of funds for my municipality and others has been devastating. Basic maintenance of roads and sidewalks has fallen so far behind.”

The money is used to repair roadways, fix sidewalks and plow snow in the winter.

Since 2003, nearly $947.5 million was transferred from the transportation trust fund in order to offset state budget shortfalls.

In 2008, the state fully funded its $45 million share of state highway aid to incorporated towns. By 2010, the reductions dropped state funding to $1.6 million. Since then, Baltimore city has seen its share of state highway aid cut by about half. (During that same period, Maryland counties — which are not part of the municipal league — lost nearly 97 percent of their aid.)

Smaller incorporated subdivisions also have seen drastic cuts. Chesapeake Beach Mayor Bruce Wahl said he saw the share of state funding for his town of 6,000 people and 16 miles of roads drop from $350,000 to $35,000.

Wahl said he used the money to fill in the cracks in his roads rather than perform needed repaving projects.

Greenbelt Mayor Judith “J” Davis said the cuts have left towns like hers with little choice other than to defer road projects or divert money from other services.

On top of that, Greenbelt and other towns saw their property assessments decrease by 20 percent to 40 percent, Davis said.

“Sixty percent of our budget is from property taxes, you just don’t make that up,” Davis said. “We’re a full-service city.”

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed the first gas tax in two decades. The first 3.5 cents of that increase took effect in July along with additional increases to tolls. Motorists could pay as much as 16 cents more in gas taxes by 2016.

The leaders of small towns in Maryland say the increases should provide them with much needed revenues. “We did share in the pain,” Anderton said. “One of the intended uses of the gas tax was to restore highway user revenue. You got your tax, so where’s the other end of that?”

Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, said small towns in Maryland “have to have a long-term solution.”

That solution, he said, is as simple as adhering to the existing formula that provides highway aid to counties and incorporated subdivisions and essentially creating a lockbox that would prevent the money from being diverted.

“[Incorporated towns] can’t hope there will be funding,” Hancock said. “There has to be a formula we can take to the bank.”

Anderton and others believe Gov. Martin O’Malley and other state officials are sympathetic to their cause.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told Maryland Municipal League members last month that he is hopeful the state will restore the funding, according to Southern Maryland News Online.

“I know the towns need [highway user revenue funds] very much,” said Miller, according to the publication.

The long-time leader of the Senate added: “We’re gonna try to get you that extra money with the gas tax.”

Attempts to reach Miller for comment on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Nina Smith, an O’Malley spokeswoman, declined to comment.

“It’s too early to talk about commitments in the budget,” Smith said.

But, for Davis and other mayors, the time to talk about the budget is now, as they near January and the time for setting the spending plans for their own municipalities.

“It’s exasperating to have to keep going to Annapolis hat in hand,” Davis said. “It’s much more efficient to have a formula and a plan we understand and that will allow us to plan.”