Counties’ Concern For 2021 Session? Their Bottom Lines

Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The coronavirus pandemic decimated county budgets across Maryland, with many local governments digging into their own pockets before federal funding was available. 

Now, the Maryland Association of Counties wants state legislators to help counties fill in those funding gaps during the next legislative session. Natasha Mehu, the legislative director at MACo, outlined the association’s four policy initiatives for 2021 in an interview with Maryland Matters: 

Fund public health

Money for Maryland’s county public health agencies took a devastating blow more than a decade ago and never recovered, Mehu said, leaving counties unprepared for the pandemic. 

She said the state’s core funding program, which provides money for local health departments, was cut back during the 2008 recession, and that MACo has been trying to get more local health funding from the state ever since. 

“After a dozen years, they have never been fully restored to where they were then,” Mehu said of the funding levels for local health departments. “And so the local health departments had already been working from a position of having less funding and less support, to do the wide range of public health services they provide.”

The coronavirus pandemic brought public health funding into the limelight, and Mehu said it’s time for state legislators to shell out more money to help local governments combat the pandemic. 

Expand broadband access

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered office buildings across the state and the country, sending many to work from home indefinitely. It also highlighted the dramatic gaps in broadband access across Maryland, with a lack of access to reliable internet existing from Baltimore City to the most rural parts of the state. 

Mehu said it’s important to keep in mind that internet access is both an urban and rural issue. She said MACo plans to push legislation that would help local governments build out high-speed internet access in underserved communities.

“We seek to provide a couple of different ways to help ensure that there is greater access to broadband, not only in the rural areas where there is lack of build-out, but also in other areas of state, such as urban areas where access is a different sort of issue.”

Baltimore lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to internet access at home, according to a recent report by the Abell Foundation. That report showed that gaps in at-home internet access exist along racial lines in Baltimore: While 73.3% of white households in the city have access to broadband at home, only 50.2 % Black households and 46.4% of Hispanic households do. 

There has been a nationwide push to expand internet access into rural areas in the last decade, and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has funded broadband expansion during his time in office. Hogan created the Office of Rural Broadband in 2017, and has since funneled millions into expanding internet infrastructure in some of Maryland’s most rural areas.

As the coronavirus pandemic cast a light on the need for internet access at home, however, the conversation around urban broadband has been changing. Hogan recently released $10 million in funding toward broadband access for education, roughly $1.7 million of which went to Baltimore City Schools.

Split election costs evenly

MACo wants legislators to codify a 20-year tradition in which local and state governments split election costs, Mehu said. That push to codify election costs comes after MACo officials called Hogan’s plan for the general election an “unfunded mandate” in an August letter. 

Prince George’s County officials asked Hogan for more election money in a Wednesday letter, writing that protective equipment for election judges, securing ballot drop-boxes and sending out mail-in ballots to voters has racked up millions in unbudgeted costs for the county.

Mehu said MACo wants county election officials to have a voice when it comes to large-scale election decisions, including contracts and the conduct of future elections. 

“The state is making those decisions, and then the counties have to follow that,” Mehu said. “That also comes with cost changes. We’d like to make sure that those election professionals at the local level have a seat at the table for those decisions that will impact the local election boards, and particularly the county funds that would have to go to funding any of those changes.”

Secure county budgets 

Mehu said the pandemic has put a massive strain on local, state and federal budgets alike ― but warned that state officials may look to send the burdensome costs of the pandemic down to local governments instead of dealing with them head on.

“Shifting costs from the state to the counties will not solve any problems,” Mehu said. “It’s going to only exasperate them at the local level. So we’re really looking to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

She said MACo is “playing defense” and doesn’t intend to urge any legislation on county coronavirus costs. Instead, she said they’ll try to limit funding cuts to counties, and ensure local governments still get the money they need to fund public health, roadwork and other essential functions.

Congressional relief funding was helpful to counties at the onset of the pandemic, Mehu said, but much of it came with red tape and limitations on how it could be used. She said many counties had to dig into their own pockets to fill in the funding gaps in their jurisdictions. 

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