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'No Winners' in Budget War, Says Nonprofit Advocate

Stakeholders weighed in at Howard County's human services town hall Wednesday night on the state's budget.

A town hall meeting about Maryland's budget, in the context of Howard County’s nonprofit community, began on a dim note Wednesday night. 

“It is my personal conclusion that there will be no winners in this particular budget session,” said Jackie Eng, President of Board of Directors of the Association of Community Services (ACS), at the Feb. 29 meeting in Columbia.

Eng explained that ACS’s membership contains approximately 100 nonprofit and human services organizations in Howard County that are either state or county-funded.

“Our members that are funded by the county are very concerned about shifting pensions,” said Eng.

She was referring to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s from the state to the county budgets, a measure that the governor said would help the state offset its $1.1 billion shortfall.

 across the state have protested the measure, claiming that their jurisdictions are not prepared to absorb the cost of a benefit that Maryland controls; teachers' pensions are established by the state.

On Thursday, County Executive Ken Ulman is hosting a  to protest the transfer of teacher pensions to the county's budget, which he said would cost the county $17 million in the first year.

At the meeting Wednesday evening, Eng continued: “Our members that are primarily funded by the state are then concerned that if [the cost of teacher pensions] doesn’t come to the counties, then the state programs [will suffer]."

Representatives from nonprofits spoke to what Eng called the "dilemma" facing Howard County's human services community.

Ellie Mitchell, director of Maryland Out of School Time, which advocates for after school programs, said that budgets have been "sliced and diced" to the point that "there is nowhere to cut."

To compensate for lack of funding, she said: "School systems have to make decisions about whether they're going to offer after-school or summer opportunities....You see library hours being reduced. All of this is contracting what's available for kids..."

Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County, said that on her staff of 14 people, 10 could qualify for services provided by the Community Action Council, which serves the basic needs of low-income residents, if their salaries were cut any further.

Henry Bogdan from Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute acknowledged that it was not necessarily the most popular thing to cut costs or raise taxes. However, he said that in one way or another, Maryland had to "increase the size of the pot" of money available.

"I wouldn’t have a problem with the county executives saying, 'Stop the shift,' if they’re also saying, 'We will help the government raise money for the general fund,' ” said Bogdan. “But I didn’t hear that.”

He said: “If all you do is stop the shift and train-wreck the governor's tax package..." then it's not going to be effective in fixing the state's budget woes.

Del. Guy Guzzone, chair of the Howard County delegation, arrived a few minutes into the meeting, fresh from Annapolis, and offered his perspective. He said that representatives were discussing the budget dilemma and ways to fix it.

"The problem that has come up right now is that there are big segments of the Assembly that are opposed to everything and there are logical reasons for that based on their constituencies," said Guzzone.

"You think with Montgomery County...folks [will be] willing to raise taxes," he said. But that's not the case. "They don’t want to do the millionaire tax because they have the largest percentage of people making that kind of money in their area."

He said that raising the state's sales tax was rejected by representatives from the Eastern Shore where constituents hotly opposed the idea.

"From an economic development perspective," said Guzzone, "if we raise [taxes] even slightly," Maryland could become "one or two in the nation" in its rate of taxes, driving out business.

Neil Bergsman, of the Maryland Tax and Budget Policy Institute, said that in the next two weeks, details about the budget would be hashed out and a new proposal created in the General Assembly. Therefore, he said, the time was right for constituents to chime in with their thoughts.

"Annapolis is still a small town," said Bergsman. "Twenty to 30 calls [from constituents] on an issue feels like a tidal wave."

Guzzone nodded in agreement.

"If you're concerned about access to medical care for low-income people, if you're concerned about maintaining top-quality schools, put it in a paragraph" and email it to your legislator, said Bergsman. "They will weigh it in their decision-makng and it will make a difference."

He added: "If you want to really be helpful, you will add another paragraph that says, 'and I'm willing to support moderate tax increases'" to fund those programs.

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