State may cut funds for local programs

March 15, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

Christi Johns told a panel of state lawmakers earlier this week how she had dropped out of school and was living in her car until Girls Inc. of Hagerstown reached out to her.

"They were here for me," said Johns, 18, who has gone back to school and wants to become a lawyer.

Even as Johns testified Monday for the nonprofit Girls Inc.'s $200,000 state grant, a Senate committee had already recommended rejecting all local grant requests this year.

Washington County lawmakers have asked for $1.2 million for five nonprofits.

Statewide, there are about $80 million in requests for funds through the bond bill program. In a typical year, the Maryland General Assembly would award about $22 million in grants.

But facing the worst budget crunch in years, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee decided to slash the program viewed by some as pork.


Now it's up to the House Appropriations Committee to decide whether to keep the program alive.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said it will be difficult to find the money this year.

"If we do these bond bills we might not be able to fund ongoing things. It's a real Sophie's choice in a lot of instances," said Hecht, who used to run a nonprofit battered women's shelter in Frederick, Md.

Even if the House saves the program, the final decision will be made by a small group of legislators appointed to a budget conference committee.

"Time will tell. I would like to see some of the funds for local bond initiatives left in the budget," said Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Local nonprofit directors were let down by the news.

"Of course it's very disappointing and frustrating for us," said Maureen Grove, executive director of Girls Inc.

Without the grant, Girls Inc. won't be able to start construction this summer on a $1 million gym at its Washington Avenue center.

The nonprofit has raised $750,000 so far, which includes a $250,000 state bond bill grant from 1998.

Associated Builders and Contractors of the Cumberland Valley also is hoping the state will be able to find some money to help the organization renovate the former Armory building in downtown Hagerstown.

"There's a lot of good organizations, not only ours, that are also in need of assistance. We're not going to give up hope yet," said ABC Executive Director Joan Warner.

ABC has asked for $550,000 for the building, which will be used to train people in the construction trades.

American Red Cross of Washington County will build its new headquarters off Eastern Boulevard in Hagerstown this year with or without a $300,000 grant, said Executive Director Julie Barr-Strasburg.

The agency may have to forego some of the building options, including an emergency power generator. As a last resort, the Red Cross will scale back the size of the building, she said.

The Red Cross got a $300,000 bond bill last year.

"Sometimes you've got to be appreciative of what's there," she said.

The other local grant requests are $100,000 to help the Boys and Girls Club of Washington County build a new gym at Noland Village public housing complex and $50,000 to help the Hagerstown Model Railroad Museum restore an old station in Sharpsburg.

Even if the bond bill program survives this year, local nonprofits won't get all they have asked for.

The county's six delegates have already ranked the projects in order of priority, McKee said.

But to avoid unnecessary hurt feelings, McKee didn't want to reveal the results unless the bond bills are moving forward.

Lawmakers generally take into consideration matching money, readiness of the project and whether the nonprofit has already received a state grant.

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