County officials across Maryland are gearing up to push back against O’Malley administration policies that have cut state aid to the counties, piled on teacher pension costs with little say in how the pension system is run, and taken away local control over land use decisions.

The 2013 initiatives by the Maryland Association of Counties were formally adopted by the MACo legislative committee Wednesday and announced later that day on the association Conduit Street blog. The committee has 62 members, including all the major elected officials from each jurisdiction, but each county and Baltimore City gets only one vote.

“County governments have taken the deepest cuts of any part of the state’s budget during the Great Recession,” the MACo position said.  “Local governments have lost some $1.8 billion in state support since Fiscal Year 2010, affecting nearly every essential local service: roads and bridges; law enforcement; health departments; and jails. Temporary cuts have been made permanent or extended with each budget cycle, and state administrative costs have been shifted to counties without any county control.  In addition to aid reductions and cost shifts, the state’s recent teacher pension shift sends to counties massive new costs that lie completely outside the county government’s management.”

The statement does not mention that while cutting state aid in most areas, aid to local school systems has not been cut.

“Although the State continues to face long-term funding challenges to meet its spending commitments to education, Medicaid, and general government – the State’s fiscal situation clearly remains stronger than that of its counties, whose reliance on property taxes lags behind the overall economy,” the statement went on. “MACo urges State policy makers to restore eclipsed funding, ease financial burdens of prior costs shifts, and reinforce capital commitments to schools and other county priorities.”

County officials and their legislative staff vigorously fought the aid reductions, and this year, they fiercely opposed shifting half the future cost of teacher pensions to local governments.

Counties demand seats on pension board

Besides the added hundreds of millions in pension contributions they will be forced to make, the counties complain they have little representation on the pension board, “no control or say in plan design changes and benefit enhancement” – all controlled by the legislature—and no role in making investment decisions, which are done by the pension board headed by the state treasurer and comptroller.

CORRECTED: The counties are demanding two seats on the 13 14-member pension board, which includes state officials and representatives of employee groups as well as public members appointed by the governor.

The counties also strenuously object to policies being implemented in the name of environmental protection that take away authority for local land use decisions from county elected officials. These include federally mandated Chesapeake Bay pollution controls, Plan Maryland, legislation restricting septic systems, followed by even stronger regulations. The new requirements have stretched county planning staffs, the counties complain.

The MACo initiative does not suggest any remedies for these planning mandates, which they also vehemently opposed.

–Len Lazarick