Land Is Cheap, But Open Space Funds Are Lacking

Political notebook

July 05, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Three years ago, Howard County received $9.5 million from the state's Program Open Space fund for buying and developing parkland, the highest amount this decade. For the fiscal year starting July 1, the county is due $438,062 from the local share of that same state program.

That's the lowest amount the county has received this decade, and it led county Recreation and Parks Director Gary J. Arthur to publicly ask county legislators for help.

"I'd appreciate it if our delegation, when times improve, can fund it the way it was," Arthur said recently.

The program's money comes from one-half of 1 percent of real estate transfer tax revenues, which are drastically down statewide due to the recession. In addition, the General Assembly took $21 million from local-share open space funding in the November 2007 special session, according to David Juppe, senior operating budget analyst with the state's Department of Legislative Services.

When Program Open Space began in 1969, partly through the efforts of Howard County state Sen. James Clark, the state and county split those transfer tax revenues evenly.

Now, according to state Department of Natural Resources officials, a series of four newer preservation programs siphons off some of the money before the county sees a share, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, used $480 million in program funding to help plug budget gaps during the first three years of his term, from 2002 to 2006.

The annual amounts for Howard grew under Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, hitting a decade-high peak of $9.5 million in fiscal 2007, but have dropped to what will be 8 percent of the revenues in fiscal 2010, Arthur said.

That lack of funding has meant development of 300-acre Blandair Regional Park in east Columbia has waited a dozen years to begin what will eventually be a $30 million project. The first fields are scheduled for construction soon.

The North Laurel Park and community center, where ground was broken May 30, is to cost $25 million, and the county is set to spend $1.6 million in fiscal 2010 to begin work on Troy Hill Park in Elkridge, a $38 million project.

"We haven't been able to acquire land," Arthur said, because of the lack of funds. The county often sells bonds to finance park construction, but that means competing with more critical needs, like school renovations and expansions, and higher local debt.

Now, when land prices are lower, is a good time to buy it for future use as the county population continues to grow, Arthur said, but the money just isn't there.

State officials sympathize, but say there's little they can do.

"Everyone across the board is taking the pain," said Meredith Lathbury, director of land acquisition and planning for the state Department of Natural Resources. Chip Price, director of Program Open Space grants for the DNR, said the 2010 amount may be particularly low because each year's distribution is based on an estimate made the previous December. The inevitable adjustment comes two years later, so Howard may be partly paying for the $6.7 million received from the program in fiscal 2008.

Howard County residents paid $13.5 million in transfer taxes to the state in fiscal 2007, and got $9.5 million back for local open space use. Howard was sixth in Maryland that year for per capita tax collections, but second per capita in state open space spending, state records show.

By fiscal 2009, that had shrunk to $7.2 million in transfer tax collected in Howard, but the county was tied with Worcester County for first place in per-capita open-space spending.

Statewide, transfer tax collections dropped from $213.7 million in fiscal 2007 to $100.8 million in fiscal 2009, as of May 31, according to the state Department of Legislative Reference.

County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, fretted about the situation.

"If there was ever a time to preserve land, it's in tough economic times," he said, when prices are down. But with the transfer tax revenues also down, there's no money.

Still, several county legislators are sympathetic to Arthur's plea, and hope to find a way to help.

"What we can do is change the formula and increase the split," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat who has frequently chafed at how long it is taking to make Blandair Park useable for the public.

"We're not going to be in the ballgame" if things don't change, he said.

Fellow District 13 Democrat Del. Guy Guzzone, who worked on getting land purchased for the North Laurel project as a county councilman, also would like to see more return from open-space funding.

"To the degree we can find more money for that, I'm all for it," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo serves on the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Program Open Space, and she too would like to find ways to buy and preserve more land statewide.

"There has to be a way," she said. "Land is finite and the price is going to go up."

But state Sen. James N. Robey, a former county executive and a Democrat who fought to boost the county transfer tax to pay for more capital projects but lost, issued a word of warning.

"As much as I support parks," he said, don't look for more money any time soon.

Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman predicted the bad times will become more intense in two years, when federal stimulus spending runs out, but he, like Ehrlich, doesn't believe in buying land before it can be used.

"I have been a critic of using state Program Open Space to buy land we can't develop while furloughing state employees," he said. "No one should be expecting increases in funding."

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