Clearing up historic and taxing issues

February 10, 1999

For some reason I've been irritating a lot of people lately. That's a hazard of this business, but recently I seem to be getting people steamed without half trying. And worse, their anger seems to be prompted by a misunderstanding of what I was trying to say in the first place.

That's not their fault; I'm supposed to be the professional communicator. So let's see if we can get this straightened out.

The first came after a member of the historic preservation community read my recent columns on the Ludwig Kammerer House, and wrote my boss, John League, complaining that I had printed my own "lengthy rantings on the Kammerer House and its fate, without the benefit of factual information. It is necessary to inform Mr. Maginnis that he is opinion editor and not the Supreme Court or Pontius Pilate."

My first column on the Kammerer House was an interview with the head of a company which specializes in moving historic properties who told me, that contrary to the $250,000 to $500,000 estimates given to local preservationists, the house might be moved for $100,000. The second came after a local businessman called me, offering to donate $1,000 toward any moving project, in hopes others would do the same.


The facts as I understand them are as follows:

The Kammerer House is located on the edge of a large parking lot owned by Citicorp Credit Services. It's owned by the Washington County Industrial Foundation - also known as CHIEF - which wants the home gone, but won't say why, although there's been much speculation that Citicorp wants to expand. Merle Elliott, who heads CHIEF, said he was willing to listen to any reasonable rescue plan for the house, even though, in his words "it's late in the day."

Citicorp came here in 1985, bringing lots of much-needed jobs in the middle of a recession. In the Chamber of Commerce's 1998 yearbook, the firm is listed as employing 2,150. The corporation has invested more than $70 million in buildings and equipment and paid out $260 million in local wages during its first 10 years here.

The firm has been a good corporate citizen, encouraging its employees to get involved in local non-profit organizations and charitable causes. Its combined corporate/employee donation to the United Way tops $250,000 each year. It's hard to make the case, as some are trying to do, that Citicorp - or Elliott, who's spent the past 30 years working to bring good jobs here - are villains.

Why does the house need to be moved? Nobody knows, but given their past performances as good citizens, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt, and believe that if there's a reason this place has to be moved, it's a good one. That may make me naive, but a modern-day Pontius Pilate?

The other person I've ticked off in a major way is Vince Dellaposta, a Hagerstown businessman and member of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, who took umbrage at a column I wrote on the proposal to raise either the gasoline or the state sales tax.

The list of road, bridge and mass-transit projects facing the State of Maryland is staggering, including $95 million for the project to widen Interstate 81 to six lanes from the Pennsylvania border to the West Virginia line.

The number of vehicles traveling I-81 has grown by 14,000 vehicles per day in the last four years, and planning and construction for the widening project could take eight to 10 more years. So traffic will get a lot worse before it gets better, at a time when Washington County is trying to attract new industry.

My column, which Dellaposta called "misleading and full of nonsense," questioned how the region will cope with a flood of new traffic without a better plan that we have now. It did not call for a tax increase, but for putting aside simple slogans like "no new taxes" in favor of some deep thought about which way this region is headed.

As an example of what I'd like to see, consider the Hagerstown City Council's current deliberations over the city budget. Facing a major shortfall, the council began with a declaration that it would not raise property taxes, nor would it lay off police officers or firefighters. That leaves everything else on the table.

One of the suggestions made was to limit tuition reimbursements for city workers who take college courses.

The idea probably won't be popular in City Hall, but it does recognize this basic fact: With a limited supply of money, careful planning is needed to make sure that what you do have is well-spent.

That's what I'm looking for from the "no new taxes" sloganeers. If new taxes are what you're determined to oppose, fine, but acknowledge that something else has got to give, that somebody else's program will have to be cut. When you decide what gets the ax, then you'll have what we don't have now - a plan.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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