In the wake of a visitor surge so great that Maryland state parks turned people away 292 times last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders say that county and municipal parks also are struggling with too little staff and funding to meet continuing demand.
While Wicomico County saw a 33% increase in park visitors it also experienced a 33% staffing shortage, Steven Miller, director of Wicomico County Recreation, Parks and Tourism, told the State Park Investment Commission Tuesday.
“We get behind on routine tasks, the grass doesn’t stop growing,” Miller told the commission, which was established last month by the General Assembly’s presiding officers.
“At times, the level of service suffers and then we get caught in that endless cycle of trying to play catch up with aging park facilities…in addition to trying to develop new facilities.”
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, chair of the commission, asked if low staffing was a problem because of funding or a question of not enough applicants.
Miller said it has been difficult to find people who are willing to work in parks during after-school hours, but that more funding could increase pay so that the county can attract qualified staff.
Some Maryland state parks are near cities and towns and provide an economic boost to those municipalities and complement local parks, said Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League.
However, funds are “severely limited” for municipalities, he said.
Program Open Space, run by the Department of Natural Resources, provides financial assistance to local governments to support recreational land and open space areas. However, municipalities do not always get funding from that program, Hancock said. Instead, municipalities rely mostly on city property taxes and park fees to maintain their parks.
Also it “is very hard when funds to the major designated funding source — Program Open Space — is occasionally borrowed by the state during the economic downturns and never seem to be fully restored once the crisis is over,” Hancock said.
For the last several years, a share of state transfer tax that would have gone to Program Open Space has been the “centerpiece” used to fund state parks, said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. But state transfer tax revenue ebbs and flows depending on the economy, so basing parks funding on it is “poor public policy,” he said.
Sanderson said he thinks the right way to fund state parks is through an annual budget process that takes into account increased demand, as happened during the pandemic.
It would be helpful for park users to have a website that includes information on all parks, regardless of whether they are run by the state, a county or a municipality, said Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a member of the commission.
“As a park user, it doesn’t really matter to me whether I’m going to a county park or a state park or national park, except that I have to figure out which annual pass to carry with me,” he said.
Wendy O’Sullivan, superintendent of the Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Park Service, said that a program called Find Your Chesapeake knits together recreational sites within the Bay watershed at every level.
The Maryland Park Service is the single largest owner of historic sites in the state, but Luedtke noted that, despite the Baltimore being the largest city in Maryland, it is home to only one National Park site — the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
“Unlike other significant east coast cities — New York, Boston, Philly, Richmond — we don’t have any [National Park Service] sites in the city that have to do with Black history…despite plenty of opportunity,” Luedtke said. “Frederick Douglass worked in the shipyards there and you’ve got all these great musicians of the musical history of the U.S. rooted in Baltimore.”
The National Park Service is looking at several sites in Baltimore with links to the early life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court, O’Sullivan said.