Southern Maryland counties and municipalities collectively stand to lose nearly $6.3 million in state funding used to help pay for the repair and maintenance of local roads.
Fiscal experts in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties say local jurisdictions will have to find some way to make up for reduced highway user revenues from the state. They note that the loss of the road funds in the governor's proposed budget is just one more in a series of cuts as Maryland officials grapple with a huge budget deficit.
"There are really a whole host of other issues," said Elaine Kramer, St. Mary's director of finance.
Overall, Maryland counties face reductions of more than $102 million in highway user revenues. Calvert would lose $1,670,911. Of that amount, 91 percent would be allocated to the county and the rest to municipalities. Charles would lose $2,589,047, more than 93 percent for the county. St. Mary's would lose $1,995,157, almost all of that for county use.
Those county allocations, from funds raised through the state gasoline tax, are typically earmarked for repair and maintenance of local roads, said Calvert County budget analyst Tammy McCourt. However, McCourt said she did not expect the revenue loss to "have a direct effect on the roads" or the amount that the county budgets for highway maintenance for fiscal 2004.
"It means the county will be required to foot more of that bill," McCourt said. "I don't see any impact on the quality of our roads and the maintenance of our roads."
Charles County is considering cost-cutting measures relating to its road maintenance program, said Richard Winkler, the county's director of fiscal services.
Those measures could range from delaying projects, such as the application of new road surface overlays, to reducing the number of annual grass mowings along key county arteries, Winkler said.
County commissioners would have to weigh those proposals first, Winkler said. Despite the state funding cuts, he added, Charles would not cut essential road maintenance.
"It doesn't matter what the state's done," Winkler said. "The county commissioners have a responsibility to push the snow off the roads."
Still unclear, though, is how many more funding cuts might be forthcoming from the state -- and how the counties will respond.
"I would assume the first consideration would be a reduction in expenditures," McCourt said. "We have already proposed a zero percent growth in next year's budget."
The Calvert commissioners have asked the county's legislative delegation to help them get authority to consider new real estate transfer tax. In Charles, "there are no new fees or taxes that are being considered," Winkler said. No such proposals have surfaced in St. Mary's, either, Kramer said.
All that's certain now is that state funding related to roads will be especially affected. Southern Maryland counties have been told by state transportation officials that money woes have affected key road projects.
In Calvert, the budget restraints have halted engineering work on the county's top-priority road project: improvements at Routes 2/4 and 231 in Prince Frederick.
The same is true in St. Mary's, where state funding is unavailable for that county's top highway project, the widening of two-lane Chancellors Run Road, which has become a prime thoroughfare for workers heading to Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
In Charles County, while the state continues to acquire the right of way for a proposed bypass at Routes 5 and 231 in Hughesville, all three Southern Maryland counties are waiting for a commitment of funds to build the $43 million project, the region's leading transportation priority.
Yet, in the midst of the budget crunch, fiscal experts have more to worry about than just highway funds.
"It's just one more piece of the pie," Kramer said.