Land Preservation Workgroup Final Report – Restore Program Open Space Funding

The Land Preservation Workgroup released its final report on December, 1, 2015, with recommendations to fully restore funding to local Program Open Space (POS) and other land preservation programs funded through the State’s transfer tax. The report also included recommendations to increase local flexibility on the use of POS funding for recreation facilities and convene a group of State, county, and municipal representatives to review the local apportionment formula for POS funding.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Workgroup was formed at the behest of the General Assembly’s budget committees to evaluate and make recommendations regarding land preservation and easement acquisition programs funded through the State transfer tax, including local side Program Open Space (POS). From the Executive Summary of the report:

The transfer tax funds a wonderful diversity of preservation and conservation programs, whose accomplishments rival those anywhere in the nation. This report discusses specific issues identified by legislators.

Notwithstanding the diversity of issues addressed and differing priorities among interests represented on the workgroup, the group wants to emphasize three major recommendations:

• Restore full funding of Maryland’s land preservation programs with transfer tax revenue at the earliest possible opportunity.

• Make no changes to the transfer tax allocation formula in statute.

• Amend the statute to give the local governments more flexibility in spending POS-Local funds on the acquisition and development projects that best meet their recreation and open space needs.

Almost 40 years ago, Maryland became the first state to create a transfer tax fund dedicated to land preservation and parks and recreation. Today, Maryland is a national leader in land preservation, parks and recreation: over 862,000 acres are preserved by easement, which allows working landscapes like farms and forestry businesses to prosper; another 726,000 acres are protected through public ownership, offering Marylanders an opportunity to enjoy nature, hike, fish, and hunt. These 1.6 million acres also provide valuable “ecological services”: protecting the water supply, cleaning the air and filtering stormwater runoff, and providing habitat for wildlife in addition to having a significant economic impact for both the State and local jurisdictions.

Maryland Association of County Park and Recreation Administrators (MACPRA) President and Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks Director Rick Anthony and Howard County Parks and Recreation Director John Byrd are the two county representatives on the Workgroup.  Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton chaired the Workgroup. The Workgroup met four times from June 23 to October 6.

The reported also included a summary of the Workgroup’s nine recommendations:

1. No changes be made to the transfer tax allocation formula as articulated in statute (and as described on page 6 of this report).

2. Return to full PAYGO cash funding of these programs in FY 2018 and remain at full cash funding every fiscal year thereafter.

3. Do not combine any of the State land preservation programs.

4. Transfer tax revenues should only be diverted to the General Fund in 2017 to the extent the funds are needed to close the State’s remaining structural deficit.

5. GO Bonds may be used for one more year in FY 2017 to replace any funds diverted from programs. The workgroup also proposes the use of General Funds over a three year period starting in FY 2018 to repay transfers from FY 2016 and FY 2017.

6. The proposal of legislation in the 2016 legislative session to create a “lock box” type mechanism to stop the diversions of transfer tax special funds to the General Fund.

7. A portion of the statutorily owed $90 million should be used over time to fund capital projects on DNR lands, including critical maintenance projects to reduce the current backlog.

8. Revise statute to give counties greater flexibility in how they spend their POS Local funding. Specifically, remove the current restriction on POS Local funding that sets aside a percentage only for acquisition. This would require a statutory change. If statute is changed during the 2016 General Assembly, this would begin with the FY17 POS Local funding. Existing POS Local funding (from FY16 back) would still be subject to the current restrictions until expended. The projects funded through POS Local should be based on the needs identified in the LPPRPs using an analytical gap analysis methodology that includes multiple factors (user demand, population density, land and facility distribution).

9. DBM, DNR, MDP, representatives from the Maryland Association of County Park and Recreation Administrators (MACPRA), and the Maryland Municipal League (MML) meet to review the apportionment formula that determines the percentage of POS Local funds each subdivision will receive. This group should also review the statutory requirement that a committee meet annually to review and update the apportionment formula. Based on the recommendations of this group, statute should be updated.

While the  Workgroup’s recommendations were consensus-driven, the Administration also offered its own views on several of the Workgroup recommendations at the end of the report.

Final Report of the Land Preservation Workgroup