Port survives budget fights relatively unscathed

April 03, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

The Maryland Port Administration's budget made it through the legislature without major cuts that would hamper the agency's ability to operate, Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said yesterday.

"It looks like they made out amazingly well," said Mr. Lighthizer, who also serves as chairman of the MPA's policy making board, the Maryland Port Commission.

The legislature approved an operating budget of $47.7 million, $1 million less than the MPA's request of $48.7 million.

Mr. Lighthizer said the reduction should not hurt the agency, which he said needs to improve its performance. "We have to get a better hold on management," he said. In addition, he sees the need "to continue to make substantial progress in the labor relations area."

The General Assembly did place severe restrictions on the ability of the port agency to expend capital funds. The budget bill strictly limited investment in new port facilities to projects that are directly linked to business commitments from the port's customers.

Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, the Pringe George's County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee with oversight responsibility for the port, explained, "We're willing to continue to invest in the port," but only if the MPA can demonstrate that a given expenditure is required to keep an existing customer or to bring in new business.

The port agency has been engaged in a very large capital expansion program. Construction of the Seagirt Marine Terminal and its associated rail terminal cost the state $220 million. Creation of the terminal site with fill dredged from the harbor during the construction of the Fort McHenry tunnel cost an additional $90 million.

With the completion of Seagirt last fall, the port's need for capital funds has declined dramatically. This year's budget contains $7.4 million for capital projects. But the port agency had hoped to embark on a major rehabilitation of the Dundalk Marine Terminal, which handles the bulk of the steamship lines.

Last year Dundalk handled more than two-thirds of the 5.1 million tons of general cargo that moved over the state's piers.

The current budget will prevent the MPA from starting any major improvements at Dundalk, unless the MPA can demonstrate the project is needed, for example, to keep a major steamship line calling at Baltimore.

Brendan W. O'Malley, executive director of the MPA, said the restrictions placed on the port agency are reasonable and should not prevent the agency from providing good service to steamship lines.

The $1 million cut in the budget request will eliminate merit-pay increases and cost-of-living adjustments for MPA employees. The budget also will eliminate five jobs, reducing the MPA's authorized payroll from 438 to 433.

The MPA incurred operating deficits of $1.4 million in 1989 and $3.9 million in 1988. During legislative hearings this year, the agency said the deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends in June, would exceed $4 million. Next year the deficit is expected to fall to less than $1 million, according to an MPA report to the legislature.

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