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The legislature in the year 2000

November 19, 1999

Shortly after sunrise on Wednesday, Dec., 8, the Washington County delegation to Maryland's general Assembly will meet the public for a pre-session breakfast at the Plaza Hotel near Valley mall. And while there may be sausage on the breakfast menu, there's a good chance that those attending will be more interested in how much bacon the delegation can bring home from Annapolis.

Like no other years in recent history, for Washington County the 2000 session will concern money, for schools, the water and sewer debt and a host of other projects.

It will not only be a test of their clout, but of their ability to avoid being drawn into a partisan round of political potshots that didn't yeidl much for the county in the 1999 session. If, for example, state Sen. Alex Mooney wants to build up his warchest for the next campaign by ragging on the governor, local lawmakers would be smart to put some distance between themselves and him.

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They've already distanced themselves from a proposal by County Commissioner Paul Swartzto pay off the county's water and sewer debt, but the fact that Swartz stirred up as much dust as he did only highlights the fact that up until now the delegation hasn't been much help on this issue. The amount of grant money they can squeeze out of the state in the next session will be a measure of the clout they have (or lack) in Annapolis.

Something has to be done to pay down the debt, because as Swartz pointed out in his recent letter to the governor, the county has spent $12 million in general-fund money on the problem, without making much headway. Commissioner William Wivell's austerity program promises some savings, but as a practical matter, it will take a combination of budget cuts and new revenue if the county's going to pay down the debt quickly.

Another reason to retire this debt quickly: Every year $2 million in general-fund cash is going to water/sewer debt. That cash should be going to other local products, including the school system.

In their recent meeting with the delegation, school board members noted that there's school renovation money available for the state that the county's not getting because it hasn't provided a local match.

The school system also needs more money, they said, to compete against other systems in the region for the best teachers. And they'd like $1.29 million a year from the state to cover the annual bill for the local school nursing program, a cost they say is borne by the state in other areas.

Other projects whose backers are seeking cash:

- No matter where it's built, the commissioners also want $10 million (or more) for construction of the University Systems of Maryland campus.

- City of Hagerstown, the wish list includes cash for construction of a new stadium for the Hagerstown Suns, and reimbursement for the cost of maintaining a fire marshal's office, a cost city officials should borne by the state since the state provides this service in other areas.

And as if that wasn't enough, delegates to the last Quad State Legislative conference took a stand in favor of widening Interestate 81, which more and mkore evry day is becoming clogged with heavt truck traffic.

The matter is complicated because Gov. Glendening has ruled the gasoline tax increase that might replenish the state's Transportation Trust Fund, for this year at least, and whether he might yield state surplus funds for this purpose (to a county that didn't support him for re-election) is unknown now.

But the most important (and ultimately the most expensive) topic of all may not even be discussed in this year's legsialtive sessions. I'm talking about the soon-to-start construction of two MARC commuter rail stations in Frederick.

How long do you suppose it will take for commuters to figure out that they can hop off the train in Frederick, then ride another 20 minutes over South Mountain to cheaper housing in Washington County? Not too long, I'd bet.

Properly channeled and planned for, those new residents could be the boost Washington County needs, because some will come from urban areas compared to which Hagerstown will seem safe and charming. They could be the new advocates, thew new blood and the new members of the city's neighborhood associations.

On the other hand, if every new resident decides they want a mini-mansion on three acres, then we're in trouble.

Washington County has been lucky in the recent past. Every time that surge of metropolitan growth seemed ready to heat up and roll over the mountaisn, dragging down the quality of life, the economy hit a bump and began to cool off, leaving the area time to plan for the next wave. Something tells me that we're just about out of time and luck.




Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's Opinion page editor

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