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Pension shift to local jurisdictions also highlighted in MACo briefing


Staff writer

Maryland counties should push Annapolis for more local control over land use decisions and an easing of environmental restrictions, Maryland Association of Counties officials told the Charles County commissioners last week. Counties also should seek more influence over state pension decisions, now that they’re footing more of the bill, and should receive a greater share of gas tax revenues, MACo President Ingrid Turner and Executive Director Michael Sanderson said.

County master plans, their chief planning document, should be updated every 10 years, not every six, to give staff more time, Turner said.

“It seems like after you finish doing one plan, it’s time to do it again. Our planning staff is stressed. It’s like you don’t even have time to implement that plan” before it’s time to do another, Turner said.

Charles County is in the midst of a contentious update of its own comprehensive plan, a process that has pitted developers and farmers against preservationists. The 2012 plan was scheduled to be finioshed by the first of the year, but hasn’t been sent to state agencies for a mandatory 60-day review. The Charles County Planning Commission was scheduled to vote Monday on whether to submit its draft plan to the state agencies.

Local governments should retake planning authority from the state, said Planning Commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard and member Lou Grasso.

“I think it’s appropriate. I think there’s one of the beauties of Maryland: It has not only a tremendously diverse population in a lot of ways, economically, socially and so forth, but its land has a lot of unique features throughout the state. People will go to the areas that appeal to them and offer them the kind of lifestyle they wish. They want to enhance control of the destiny of the life they live in those communities,” Grasso said.

But planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds saw the situation as more complicated, especially in light of strife over planning decisions in Charles County.

“I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, I can understand the state wanting to retain some level of input on land planning issues. Often, county-level planning issues become state-level costs. I can understand the county viewpoint in terms of wanting autonomy, of getting to make their own decisions free of state interference,” Edmonds said. “I think, generally, when people come up with these ideas of the county having more authority or the state having more authority, I think those propositions are based upon reasonable people acting reasonably toward reasonable goals. I’m not sure if those three align in counties all the time.”

Local control has failed to protect the environment. Federal government involvement, crucially the Clean Water Act of 1972, was required to reverse the decline of the Potomac River and other waterways, said Jim Long, president of the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

More environmental enforcement, not less, is needed if the county wants to save the Mattawoman Creek, Long said. A Maryland Department of Natural Resources report released this year has warned that the creek is in a decline that soon could be irreversible. Local governments tend to miss the big picture, he said.

“Their track record is not very good. There’s a reason why water quality is regulated at state and federal levels, and that’s because watersheds extend over more than a local landscape,” Long said.

In any event, local control is already supreme, he continued, with alarming results.

“From what I can tell, the planning commission has almost total control over land use. The state has very little control. … Even after the permits for the cross-county connector were denied, the planning commission still puts it on the books as a transportation corridor. They would pay no attention — it’s very clear, if you look especially at the planning commission now, there’s a 4-3 majority that would pay no attention to pollution,” Long said.

But MACo officials said environmental enforcement is difficult for counties to endure.

Counties should ask the Maryland Department of the Environment to back off on its enforcement of land preservation and pollution rules because compliance is complicated and counties are “tired,” Turner said. A policy summary distributed by MACo cites septic system regulations, nutrient runoff restrictions, the PlanMaryland statewide land use plan, code enforcement and climate change-based transportation rules as burdensome to local governments.

“MDE has given a lot of regulations, a lot of requirements, a lot of things that they want us to do in the land use area. So we say, ‘Can you give us a break? Can you hold off for two years, let us implement what you want us to implement … before you impose another regulation?’” Turner said.

Counties have other, strictly financial bones to pick with the state, as well, including the transfer of responsibility for half of teacher pensions from the state to the counties, and the drying up of revenue streams for roads, Turner said.

If counties are going to pay so much for pensions, they should have more control over how the funds are administered. To that end, MACo is asking for two seats for county government representatives on the Board of Trustees for the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, Turner said.

“Any time you’re paying the bill, you should have a seat at the table,” she said.

Roads should be funded with state gas tax money, not money from county taxes, Sanderson said, especially as the state structural budget deficit drops to about $600 million from at least $1.2 trillion, he said.

“It’s good policy to pay for your roads with gas taxes as opposed to property taxes or income taxes,” he said.

Citizens would likely resist, Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) surmised, because “there’s a lack of trust. The public doesn’t believe it’s really going to go to the purpose for which it’s intended,” so promises of road improvements won’t entice residents to cheerfully pay more for gas.