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Officials: Budget cuts will affect area roads

May 20, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's decision to cut $102 million in highway maintenance funds from counties and towns will leave roads a mess and set back repair schedules by several years, Washington County officials and others said.

Several roads throughout the county, including Trego Road, off Md. 67 near Rohrersville, and Wheeler Road, near Md. 68, are lined with craters, cracks and torn up strip patching.

"It could get worse," Washington County Commissioner John C. Munson said. "You ride around the county and you see nothing but potholes."

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County Public Works Director Gary Rohrer said the roads will continue to crumble because the county doesn't have the money to properly repair all of them.

The state cut millions in highway user revenues from municipalities statewide to give more money to public schools. Highway user revenues mainly are generated by a tax on gas.

The state motor fuel tax currently is 23.5 cents per gallon.

Ehrlich Press Secretary Henry Fawell said a more than $1 billion deficit left by the previous administration also played a part in the governor's decision to cut highway user revenues from counties and towns.

Washington County and its municipalities had state highway dollars slashed by $3.2 million for the next fiscal year, including $2.3 million expected by the county's Highway Department.

"We are really, seriously being shortchanged here," Rohrer said.

Rohrer said 95 percent of the county's $7 million Highways Department budget for fiscal year 2003 came from highway user revenues. The remaining 5 percent came from reimbursements for services provided to other agencies.

The county's Highway Department, which normally overlays about 20 miles of road a year, only has enough money this coming fiscal year for about 10 or 11 miles, he said.

About 25 percent of the county's 825 miles of roads are severely damaged, Rohrer said.

"What's troubling now is we're being denied the very revenues ... to maintain our highway system," Rohrer said.

According to the Maryland Comptroller's Web site, most of the revenue from the fuel tax goes to the Maryland Department of Transportation for state and local transportation projects.

In a March 10 letter to Del. Robert McKee, R-Washington, Rohrer compared taking the highway user revenues away from road maintenance to "theft from every motorist pulling up to the gas pump, believing that the fuel tax ... is going into maintaining the infrastructure that is so vital to our state and local economies."

Fawell said the state would try to reimburse counties and municipalities for the user revenue cuts, but he offered no guarantees.

"We are always going to look for reimbursements, but we can't ignore the massive budget deficit that Governor Ehrlich has inherited ..." Fawell said. "If it can be reimbursed, the governor will do it. That remains to be seen if it will be done."

Rohrer said the county's municipalities also face highway user revenue cuts and that the county won't have the money to give them assistance.

Larry Logan, town manager of Hancock, said the town will receive $34,522 less in fiscal year 2004 than it did in the current fiscal year. The town, which received $119,327 this fiscal year, is expecting $84,805 in the next fiscal year.

"It's probably the biggest single hit in our budget," Logan said.

The town, which usually does about $12,000 to $15,000 worth of paving work a year, will do no paving work next year because of the state cut.

Logan said at a recent Hancock Town Council meeting that the town would have to get by with patching holes.

The town also uses highway user dollars for storm drainage repairs, curb repairs and other road maintenance projects, Logan said.

Rohrer said county residents eventually will become frustrated over the condition of their roads. The longer the roads go without repairs, the worse they will become, he said.

"All they're going to know is their road is blown up, and it needs repairs," Rohrer said.

Keedysville resident Steve Goff said that despite the area's harsh winter, he didn't think the roads were too bad yet.

"There's a few potholes, and the edging's starting to come up," Goff said.

Rohrer said he thinks Ehrlich received bad advice to cut money from highway maintenance and put it toward education.

"As much as I'm in favor of and support money for education, to me it's unusual and it is inappropriate when someone pulls up to a gas pump to buy fuel ... to take that money and direct it from its legally intended use, regardless of what it's for," Rohrer said.

He said he doubts the county and its municipalities will be reimbursed by the state for the cuts.

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