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County citizens ask for tax increase

May 15, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

Speaker after speaker at a Wednesday night public hearing asked the Washington County Commissioners to raise taxes for schools and teachers' salaries.

During the hearing on the county's proposed $125 million budget, several speakers criticized the commissioners' proposed $3.1 million property and income tax increase, but dozens more said they favored higher taxes if it meant more money for schools.

About 400 people attended the hearing at Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater.

Many asked the commissioners to increase education funding at the same rate that other general fund spending would increase - 8.5 percent. Funding for the Washington County Board of Education's operating budget is projected to rise 4 percent, or about $1.9 million. An additional $1.368 million surplus from the school employee insurance plan has been earmarked for technology.

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Salem Avenue Elementary School teacher Carol Corwell-Martin asked the commissioners, "Why is it that you don't seem to care about the children of this county?" She said the commissioners were raising taxes, but the money wasn't going to education.

Robert Brennan, the pastor at Hancock United Methodist Church, said he saw cycles of poverty in his town, where children growing up think only of getting a job in a factory or going on welfare. Brennan said education was "the last, best hope for a lot of these kids to believe in themselves."

Brennan likened the school system to a leaky roof at his church. For years, instead of fixing the roof for a few thousand dollars, the repairs were put off and buckets set up to catch the leaking water. Eventually, high winds ripped a hole in the roof, forcing an immediate repair costing $30,000.

"Roofs are much more easily replaced than our children," he said. "Please do the right thing."

"You either fund the education now or you can fund the detention center later," said Hagerstown parent Steve Hummel.

"The cuts that are made now are going to hurt our children," said Jenny Belliotti, co-president of the Fountaindale PTA. She urged the commissioners to view themselves as investors in the future of the county's children.

Not all were in favor of higher taxes and increased education spending.

"The people of Washington County didn't elect you to clean out our wallets," said Greg Morris of Boonsboro. "You guys shouldn't be called County Commissioners, you should be called sheriffs of Nottingham."

Morris was critical of spending more money on education. "If 56.5 percent of the county budget is not enough to educate our kids, then probably no amount of money is enough," he said.

Morris said county employees already make $106 more per week than the average worker in Washington County, and asked why they should get an increase.

School Board President B. Marie Byers said teachers' salaries in the county rank 22nd out of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland. "Our salaries are too low," and are hampering recruitment efforts, she said.

Alan Zube, a teacher at Salem Avenue Elementary, said new businesses and professional people won't want to move into the county when they find out about the low level of support given to education. "No one's going to jump on the Titanic," he said.

Paul Muldowney, a former state delegate, said the financial needs of the county called for innovative and gutsy solutions, and proposed using tip jar proceeds to solve the problem. Muldowney urged the commissioners to pressure the state delegation to assign 30 percent of the $12 million in tip jar profits generated in the county to pay off water and sewer debt, 20 percent to charities and 10 percent to fire companies.

The $3.6 million in tip jar money that would go for water and sewer would negate the need for the tax increase, he said.

The commissioners have voted to raise property taxes from $2.21 to $2.31 per $100 in assessed property value, which would raise about $2.5 million. The piggyback income tax would rise from 50 percent to 54 percent of state income tax and would raise about $600,000.

The commissioners will vote on the final budget, including any tax increase, May 27 at their regular Tuesday meeting.

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