Program Open Space Being Pulled in Different Directions

Over the last year, the focus of Program Open Space (POS) has been subject of much discussion.  “Local” POS provides important funding to local governments for the acquisition of open space; the construction of recreational facilities, such as swimming pools, indoor recreational centers, nature centers, hiking trails, and boat ramps; and other park and recreation-related infrastructure.  There is also a “stateside” POS component, that is used by the Department of Natural Resources for similar purposes.

In the past, POS was funded through general operating funds but in recent years was shifted into the capital budget and is now funded through general obligation (GO) bonds.  In addition, the payment of some local POS funding has been “stretched out” so that instead of a county receiving its total allocation for a given year, that year’s allocation is paid out to the county over three years.  These changes to the POS program left some counties carrying the cost for POS projects out of their own budgets because they had already encumbered funds based on assurances that the POS funds would be available.   As previously reported on Conduit Street, there is $51 million in Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposed FY 2013 capital budget for local POS.  The $51 million is sufficient to allow counties to pay all past encumbrances that resulted from the POS funding changes.

But while the General Assembly will be debating whether $51 million is the appropriate amount of POS funding during this Session, it will also be debating the appropriate uses for that funding.  In the past year, two schools of thought have evolved concerning the use of POS money.  The first school, supported by the environmental community and some members on the environmental committees of the General Assembly, is that POS funding should be focused on land acquisition, in order to take advantage of low land costs and interest rates.  The other school of thought is that POS should focus on recreational facilities and infrastructure, in order to take advantage of low construction costs and to generate jobs.

The second school of thought was discussed during the recent hearings by the House and Senate Capital Budget Subcommittees.  When reviewing the POS portion of the Department of Legislative Services’ capital budget analysis, both subcommittees evinced interest in using POS funding to create jobs and build infrastructure.  MACo has always argued that POS has been successful because it contains both a land acquisition and facility development component and that local governments should have the flexibility to direct funding between these two components in a way that will best meet local needs.   However, the difficult economic situation has intensified efforts to alter the traditional focus of the program and this debate will certainly continue during this Session.

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