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County commissioners vote to increase taxes

April 29, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

The Washington County Commissioners voted Monday to raise the property tax by 10 cents and to increase the piggyback income tax from 50 percent to 54 percent.

The property tax would increase from $2.21 per $100 in assessed value to $2.31. The average homeowner with a $92,600 house would pay $35 more a year.

The increase in the piggyback income tax rate, which is based on the state income tax, would raise county tax bills by 8 percent and would bring in an additional $614,000 next year. The average taxpayer, with taxable earnings of $23,881, would pay $48 more a year.

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The two tax hikes would increase county revenues by about $3 million in the 1998 fiscal year which begins July 1.

The increases, approved during a budget work session, won't become final until after a public hearing scheduled for May 14 at 7 p.m. at Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater. The commissioners must then vote on a final budget, which would include any tax increases.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers voted against the tax increase. Commissioners R. Lee Downey, James R. Wade, and Vice President John S. Shank voted for the increase. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook did not attend the work session. Attempts to reach Snook Monday were not successful.

Downey, Wade and Shank said they would work to scale back the increase before the hearing.

Downey made the motion to increase the taxes, although he said "It's not a motion that I would really like to make."

The county's proposed budget includes substantial increases for county salaries, education, the county jail and subsidies for the Conococheague industrial pretreatment plant.

Downey said the County Commissioners could not ignore understaffing at the county jail or education needs.

Downey said the commissioners held steady or cut budgets in previous years and said that practice was catching up with them.

"We have needs in the county that have been justified," said Wade, who seconded Downey's motion.

"I think we have to be realistic... It certainly is not a popular thing to do," he said.

Wade said the increase was the honest way to deal with the problems the county faces.

Bowers, interviewed after the meeting, criticized the budget process.

"I think it's been geared toward a tax increase from the beginning. I think it was determined that there was going to be a tax increase and now they are making sure the numbers fit to justify the need for a tax increase," he said.

Bowers said that with $3.3 million in previous and projected budget surpluses, and $3 million in additional revenue projected without a tax increase, the commissioners should be able to fund the county's needs.

"I think it's absurd and unnecessary. No one will convince me that this is the right course of action for Washington County. These tax increases will only hurt working men and women and stifle economic development. It's anti-growth, anti-worker and anti-common sense."

The tax hike would not cover a proposed $3.7 million general fund subsidy for the Water and Sewer Department. The subsidy would rise from $2.7 million this year to cover a projected $1 million deficit at the Conococheague industrial pretreatment plant.

As of Monday, the proposed budget includes about $1.9 million in additional funds for the Board of Education's operating budget and $1 million for the Sheriff's Department, including funds for new deputies for the detention center.

The proposed budget also includes $275,000 more for Hagerstown Junior College and $770,000 for salary increases for county workers, including a 4 percent pay raise and money to bring all employees still on 37 1/2-hour work weeks to 40 hours.

The raises, which are recommended by a new county compensation study, would come on top of a $500 bonus, a $500 increase in salary and a 2 percent pay raise approved late last year.

Snook expressed reservations about the raises last week, and Shank said Monday it might be too soon to implement another increase.

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