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Commissioners commit $250,000 to ag program

November 02, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

The Washington County Commissioners balked Tuesday at a request to commit up to $600,000 from the next fiscal budget for a state farmland preservation program.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioners William J. Wivell and John L. Schnebly voted against the request, which came from Washington County Agricultural Preservation Board and Farmland Preservation Administrator Eric Seifarth.

"I'm concerned about going a half-million in the hole before we have started the budget process," Schnebly said. The next fiscal year begins in July.

Instead the County Commissioners voted to commit to spending about $250,000, including about $125,000 in proceeds from a 3 percent state agriculture transfer tax, on the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. The state foundation pays 60 percent for every 40 percent in matching funds counties pay.

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To fully take advantage of the program and receive $1 million from the state the County Commissioners need about $500,000 more than is presently budgeted, Seifarth said.

It's a valid request, Schnebly said, but it's not that simple.

"Everything that comes to us is worthy but we're the ones who have to balance the budget," Schnebly said. "I love the school board, I love the libraries. But we only have so much money."

If the county commits to providing the money but doesn't come up with it, there is a penalty of 17 percent interest, Seifarth said.

One way the county can pay for program participation would be through a 2 percent county ag transfer tax, which would be "piggybacked" onto the state tax. The tax is assessed when property is converted from agricultural land to other purposes.

The Ag Preservation Board supported adding a county tax to raise the $500,000, Seifarth said.

While he understands the county is in "dire fiscal times," the County Commissioners' vote sends a mixed message about the county's support for farmland, said Steve Ernst, president of the ag preservation advisory board.

He said he was not sure if the board would support adding the county transfer tax given the lower program participation by the county.

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