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Editorial - A taxing dilemma

April 29, 1997

Three Washington County Commissioners, in a move unprecedented in recent political history, this week voted to increase property taxes by 10 cents and up the piggyback income tax from 50 to 54 percent. We'll announce our position on these proposed increases after the May 14 public hearing, but there's no doubt about what's pushing the board toward this decision.

The first is a mountain of water/sewer debt, which has grown from $54.8 million to $56 million. The commissioners have three ways to reduce it: increase usage by a large volume, boost payments on the debt or cut the general-fund subsidy that keeps sewer rates from soaring.

Increasing usage is a long-term strategy that will depend on the success of a marketing strategy that hasn't even been devised yet. Even if a plan to market excess capacity to industry had been written, there's no economic development director on board to carry it out. Those who say usage can be increased without a plan or an EDC director might as well argue that a house can be built without a carpenter or blueprints.

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Boosting payments on the debt isn't possible, either, unless the commissioners find a new revenue source, like county gaming funds. So far the commissioners have been reluctant to take that step. Cutting the general-fund subsidy that keeps down sewer rates is nearly impossible, because it would result in a drop in property values, cutting the funds obtained from property taxes.

And then there's the school system, where teachers haven't had a raise for two years, and in which a group of aging schools requires more attention (to upgrade technology and keep roofs from leaking) than recent budgets have allowed. Remember the water pouring through the ceiling at Boonsboro Middle School last year? Remember the report that showed the schools' computer systems in need of major upgrades?

Bad decisions made years ago put the commissioners in this bind. If there's a way to deal with all these priorities without raising taxes, we're all for it. But as we recently told prospective candidates for the next county board: Show us the plan.

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