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Delegation drags feet over sewer fixes

July 15, 1999

Do you have a good idea for solving Washington County's multi-million-dollar water and sewer debt? If so, share it (in 100 words or less) with the readers of The Herald-Mail and win a $20 prize in our latest editorial page letter-writing contest.

In case you came in late, here's what happened: Acting against consultants' advice, a previous board of commissioners voted to build the Conococheague wastewater treatment plant, then failed to market it aggressively, or raise rates to cover costs. By the time some new Sanitary Commission members got wise to this gusher of red ink, the tab was more than $40 million.

To pay down the debt, the county's consultant recommended a steady increase in rates. To keep those rates affordable, the county is also kicking in $2 million-plus in general fund money each year. State officials say our rates are too high to attract the good-paying manufacturing industries we want here, while the school board is clamoring for money the county doesn't have because it's being spent on the sewer problem.

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And what about state relief? It might happen, except that Washington County's representatives to the Maryland General Assembly have been missing in action on this issue. These people, who for all the good they do might as well be the children whose pictures you see on milk cartons, know what isn't possible. But as for solutions, they're fresh out.

In a meeting last week with the County Commissioners, the delegation shot down Commissioner Paul Swartz's proposal for a temporary increase in the state sales tax, from 5 to 6 percent. By Swartz's calculations, this increase would yield $12 million a year, enough to pay off the debt within five years.

Won't happen, said state Sen. Donald Munson, who said the three members of the Budget and Taxation Committee he'd talked to didn't like the idea. Del. Bob McKee said to get anything like that passed, the county would first have to show it had exhausted other possibilities, like raising property taxes and the county's "piggyback" income tax. The latter tax is now pegged at 50 percent of the income tax citizens pay to the state, but could be raised to 60 percent.

Maybe we'll have to do that "if this doesn't fly," said Commissioner Bert Iseminger. I'd feel better about the county doing that if there was some guarantee (or even a good chance) that some state help would follow.

What's more likely is that taxes would be raised and then the delegation would return from Annapolis with an empty sack and the usual talk about how the "beltway bullies" made it impossible to get anything else.

Are there any other possibilities? Yes, if the County Commissioners are ready for a full-court press on this issue, they could bypass the delegation altogether. At least that's the feeling I got after talking to a representative of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Michael Sanderson, legislative director of MACO, said that if the measure had statewide implications, it could be submitted to MACO for possible inclusion on its priority list. If the proposal made it through that review process to become a MACO priority, then MACO would seek out a sponsor for the bill.

If the county is contemplating such a move, Sanderson said, don't wait too long, because "we've already got a healthy stack" of legislative requests.

Asked to assess such a proposal's chance for success, Sanderson said the Eastern Shore would probably oppose it, since they're already facing a disdvantage because nearby Delaware has no sales tax. And there's been talk about the need for new revenues for the Transportation Trust Fund, Sanderson said, so any cash generated by a sales tax hike might go there instead.

Here's my view: Larger metro counties, like Prince George's, don't hesitate to ask for more state cash even though voters there enacted a tax cap. Because they need to rebuild neighborhood schools closed when students were bused elsewhere for reasons of racial balance, P.G. would be a natural supporter of any bill to rebate sales tax cash to the county where it was collected.

With their clout - Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller is a P.G. resident - the obstacles cited by Munson and McKee might be overcome, if Swartz and the commissioners are willing to risk alienating the delegation. The risk is worth it, in my opinion, because it's not as if alientating the delegation will cost the county a big windfall.

Think I'm wrong? Is there a better way to pay off a debt that has the county sending general fund money for sewers that should go to the schools instead? Is there a better way to pay off the debt than raising rates and chasing away potential industries? If so, tell me, in 100 words or less, and send your letters to: ebt Contest, c/o Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.




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

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