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County tax hike nixed

May 27, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

The Washington County Board of Education and county taxpayers each will have more money in their pockets than first proposed after Washington County Commissioners passed next year's budget Tuesday night.

The County Commissioners nixed their proposed increase in the piggyback income tax from 50 to 54 percent of the state's tax after Finance Director Debra Bastian told them Tuesday afternoon she expected a surplus of between $2 million and $2.5 million for this fiscal year. The fiscal year ends June 30.

The commissioners decided to use $750,000 of the surplus to balance next year's budget instead. The income tax hike would have raised about $600,000 next year.

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The news isn't as good for property owners. The property tax will increase from $2.21 per $100 in assessed value to $2.31. The average homeowner with a $92,600 house will pay about $37 more a year.

The commissioners allocated an additional $750,000 to the Board of Education as a one-time donation, bringing the total increase to about $2.6 million, not including $1.368 million for technology from an education employees' self-insurance fund surplus.

The commissioners also nudged projected revenue up $200,000 to balance the budget.

The Water and Sewer Department subsidy dropped to $3.53 million from $3.7 million that had been proposed because $168,000 in cleanup work will be performed this year, with surplus money from a Cavetown sewer project.

The commissioners also eliminated $25,000 in United Way funding and $25,000 in new money allocated for fire and rescue companies' utilities. They restored $31,000 in funding for adult foster care and $5,000 for senior living alternatives. They added $20,000 in funding for the airport's new fire service.

Another $220,000 will come from "miscellaneous," including increased interest income from the surplus.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers voted against the tax increase and the budget. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, Commissioners R. Lee Downey, James R. Wade and Vice President John S. Shank voted for the tax increase and the budget.

"I am convinced the school board needs more money," Bowers said.

Bowers proposed giving the school board an extra $750,000 compared to what the commissioners approved. Bowers also said the commissioners should have considered increasing the county real estate transfer tax from zero to 1 percent, which would raise about $1.6 million.

"You want to stop the growth in the county completely, don't you?" Shank asked.

Bowers said if he had been in charge of the budget, he wouldn't have given employees pay raises, wouldn't have hired new employees and wouldn't have approved a $400,000 increase in funds for the Sheriff's Department's patrol division. Bowers said that the projected revenue increase for next year was too low and said the budget process wasn't frugal this year.

"This year we've let the dog go," he said.

Wade, who made the motion to increase the property tax, blasted Bowers' vote after the meeting.

"Ron refuses to acknowledge that the tax increase is directly caused by the failure of water and sewer, of which he was the major player. He's so busy running for reelection he won't help us fix the problems he created."

Bowers said he was proud of his record and said Wade was making political maneuvers to gain attention.

Commissioner R. Lee Downey first pushed to keep the tax increases as proposed and worried that if the taxes weren't raised this year the commissioners would be short of money in next year's budget.

"I hate to raise taxes, we all hate to raise taxes ... We've just got to bite the bullet and do it."

The commissioners also considered and rejected a series of combinations of property and income taxes and transfer tax hikes.

The $125 million budget includes a $1 million increase for the county detention center, including 12 new correctional officers.

The budget also includes $275,000 more for Hagerstown Junior College, $394,000 for a 3 percent raise for county workers and $225,000 to bring all employees still on 37 1/2-hour work weeks to 40 hours.

The raises come on top of a $500 bonus, a $500 increase in salary and a 2 percent pay raise approved late last year.

"I'm glad it's over," Snook said.

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