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County looks for ways to balance 1998 budget

March 28, 1997

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

A quick look Thursday at the proposed fiscal 1998 budget made it clear to the Washington County Commissioners that they're in for some belt-tightening.

The commissioners indicated they may have to cut services, but said it's too early to know whether they will raise taxes in order to fund budget requests.

Public safety and education are the two biggest budget items, said county Director of Budget and Finance Debra Bastian. The proposed budgets of both would suffer without a tax hike, she said.

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The Washington County Board of Education and the Sheriff's Department, which is a public safety agency, are asking for more money in fiscal 1998 than the previous year. Most of the requested increase for the Sheriff's Department would go for wages for new workers, officials said.

Sheriff Charles Mades is asking for 22 new correctional officers, a records clerk and a cook, they said.

The school board wants $6 million more from the county for operating costs and $2.1 million more for upgrading technical equipment, finance officials said.

Bastian offered the commissioners three hypothetical tax options that she said represent "two extremes and the middle-of-the-road" approach to the fiscal 1998 general fund budget.

Option 1 is not to raise taxes. If the commissioners decide to maintain the status quo, they can expect total revenues of $94.2 million - more than $3 million over last fiscal year. Doing that would mean the Sheriff's Department, school board and Hagerstown Junior College would get little, if any, additional funds over those necessary to maintain services.

Option 2 is for a 10-cent real estate tax hike that would bring in an additional $2.4 million in revenue, and creation of a .5 percent real estate transfer tax that would bring in another $700,000, Bastian said.

That $3.1 million in extra funds could be divided between the Sheriff's Department and the school board, Bastian said.

She said that to fully fund all budget requests, the commissioners would have to adopt Option 3, which calls for a 42-cent real estate tax hike, a 10 percent income tax hike, and a 1 percent transfer tax.

"Option 3 is not an option," Commissioner R. Lee Downey said.

Commissioner John L. Shank said the county may want to look at some combination of options.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said he was reserving judgment on whether tax hikes would be necessary.

"I'm waiting to see what we put into law enforcement and education before I think about that," he said.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he hadn't given tax hikes much thought, and would consider program cuts first.

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