- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

OCEAN CITY — A loss of $38,000 in state funds may not sound like much, but for a small town such as Kensington, it can mean raising taxes or cutting services or taking money out of savings to keep the budget balanced.

That’s what Kensington Mayor Lynn Raufaste and other city officials hope Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will take away from the annual convention of the Maryland Municipal League.

“We just want the governor to understand that local government is at the bottom of the totem pole,” Mrs. Raufaste said yesterday.

Kensington officials decided to take money out of reserve funds to make up for the loss of state aid in their budgets for the fiscal year that begins Tuesday. But Mrs. Raufaste said she can’t afford to let the reserve funds the town keeps on hand for emergencies dip any lower.

“If there are more cuts to us, we will have to raise taxes,” she said. “I can’t believe the governor would want that.”

Mr. Ehrlich reduced state aid to county and municipal budgets as part of the spending cuts he implemented to balance the state budget for the coming fiscal year.

Mr. Ehrlich had few comforting words for municipal officials in his speech at a banquet last evening.

He said he plans to create a new state job of “grants czar” to make sure state and local governments get every available dollar of federal aid. He also said major tax bills are off the table, and appealed to the municipal leaders to support his plan to put slot machines at Maryland racetracks.

The governor was a little more positive in an interview before his speech, although he said he can’t promise there will be no more cuts in local government aid.

“It’s tough to answer right now,” he said, when asked what local governments can expect from his administration.

But Mr. Ehrlich offered a glimmer of hope, saying “Some of the worst fears, we feel, are unfounded.”

He said Maryland will benefit from additional federal aid included as part of the tax cut approved by Congress. And he said he is hoping state revenues will rebound if the economy begins to improve.

The state is facing a deficit estimated as high as $1.5 billion for fiscal 2005, which begins in July of next year.

To get a head start on closing that huge potential deficit, Mr. Ehrlich plans to implement additional cuts in spending during fiscal 2004.

Local government officials have feared they might be asked to bear part of the burden, but Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, said the governor’s aides have indicated that “they are not going to mess with the 2004 budget. We certainly hope that’s going to be the case.”

Mrs. Raufaste, outgoing president of the Maryland Municipal League, said the mayors would like to see a commitment from the governor to replace the $12.3 million he has already cut from their share of transportation funds.

Mr. Hancock said that is a major share of revenues for some small towns. “That’s plowing snow. That’s fixing potholes,” he said.

Mrs. Raufaste, a Republican, and Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty, a Democrat, were critical of Mr. Ehrlich for vetoing the tax bill passed by the legislature, which would have provided money, which they said could have been used to help local governments.

“The failure to realize that people are willing to pay for services is a myopia that will plague this administration,” Miss Dougherty said.

Mark Frazer, mayor of North Beach in Calvert County and the new president of the Maryland Municipal League, said mayors want to hear from Mr. Ehrlich “that he understands what the cuts in state aid mean in terms of our ability to provide services.”

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