Cities and towns across Maryland are repeating calls for the state government to restore transportation funding to municipal coffers after three years of the money going toward balancing the state budget.
At the Maryland Municipal League fall conference last weekend, representatives of the 157 member cities and towns voted on two priorities for the 2013 General Assembly session, both reflecting tight municipal budgets the past few years.
One priority is to get the state to share the Highway User Fund with municipalities as in previous years, and the other is to allow cities to stop having to post legal notices in newspapers.
Highway User funding comes from fuel taxes and other transportation fees, and historically the state has shared that money with municipalities. In 2008, municipalities across the state received $45 million from the fund. By 2011, that number dropped to $1.6 million, then inched back up to $6.5 million in 2012.
Municipalities have used the money to pay for new roads or fix old ones, and to install sidewalks or to repave, said Greenbelt Mayor Judith Davis, president of the Maryland Municipal League.
“A lot of municipalities have had to pull money from other programs or cut back drastically on road improvement projects,” Davis said.
The city of Greenbelt expects about $93,000 from the Highway User fund in 2013, down from $556,665 in 2009. To make up for the lost revenue, the city has cut back on hiring and salaries, delayed replacing equipment and looked for cost savings such as more energy-efficient streetlights.
But those savings are nowhere near making up for the loss of Highway User and other revenues — losses that have left municipalities straining to balance budgets, Davis said.
“You can’t look at just that fund, because it’s not just those revenues that were cut off,” she said. “Some of the other grants from the state dried up, and our property taxes have taken a big hit.”
While asking for more money from the state, the league also is looking for cost-saving legislation that will allow them to move public notices off the printed page and onto the Web.
Many municipalities are required by law to post legal notices in a local newspaper of record. For some municipalities, that can be a big expense, Davis said. According to budget documents, Greenbelt spent about $40,000 on public notices in 2012, though Davis noted that some notices were voluntary and not required by law.
“Because of the expense and because of the desire to get more exposure for these kinds of notices, we’re supporting enabling legislation that would allow municipalities to post notices online,” Davis said, noting that newspaper readership is declining.
“Where is everything going these days?” Davis said. “It’s going online. That’s where people look for information.”
The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association has opposed similar legislation in the past, arguing that newspapers are an independent historical record of government action and should continue to be the venue for public notices.
As the session begins and bills begin to drop, Davis said the league will take positions on those issues that stand to affect municipalities the most.