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Voters could decide on hotel-motel tax

December 21, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Washington County voters who oppose construction of a stadium can force a vote on its funding if the Maryland General Assembly approves a... (continued from front page) proposal to hike the motel-hotel tax, County Attorney Richard Douglas said Tuesday.

Douglas explained the referendum process to the Washington County Commissioners at the request of Commissioner William J. Wivell, who said Friday he would support a referendum.

But on Tuesday, Wivell said it would be up to voters to pursue a referendum if they want the matter placed on the ballot.

There will, however, be nothing to take to referendum until the General Assembly approves a bill granting the hotel-motel tax increase requested by the commissioners.

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Should the legislature do so, residents wishing to have the matter placed on the ballot in a referendum would need 3,461 signatures on a petition, or 10 percent of the number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the 1998 election, Douglas said.

But signatures can't be collected until after the General Assembly passes a bill increasing the hotel tax, Douglas said. The language of the petition would depend on the language of the law, he said.

Wivell said he will abide by the County Commissioners' Dec. 14 decision to ask the county delegation to hike the hotel-motel tax to 5 percent from the current 3 percent. He and Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook voted against it.

Washington County Election Supervisor Dorothy Kaetzel said last week that only the General Assembly can call for a referendum to appear on the Washington County ballot. She said Tuesday she was in error.

Under the commissioners form of government that Washington County has, voters can take General Assembly bills, but not county decisions, to referendum.

Counties with home rule charters have broader power, and voters in such counties can petition county issues to referendum.

During a brief discussion at the meeting, Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said he felt the commissioners should stick to the decision they made.

"I think we should go forward with it and let the chips fall where they may," Swartz said.

Hagerstown Councilman J. Wallace McClure has said he would try to petition to referendum the council's decision to spend up to $3 million on a new baseball stadium. However, that referendum would have to address a specific ordinance, such as one authorizing a bond to pay for a stadium, not just a vote pledging money conditionally.

Wivell asked what the county's position would be if the city were to hold a referendum.

Snook said if the matter was put to a vote in the city, and the stadium issue failed to get majority support, the push for a new stadium would be dead as far as he is concerned.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said the more immediate question is whether the local delegation will support stadium funding. The current stadium proposal calls for $6 million to come from the state.

"Any talk of a referendum at this point on either side is premature," Iseminger said.

The county's requested hotel-motel tax hike would raise an estimated $320,000 a year over the 20-year life of the bond. Those funds would be used to pay the county's $3 million commitment for a proposed $12 million to $15 million Hagerstown Roundhouse and Sports Complex.

The primary tenant of a new stadium would be the Hagerstown Suns.

Left unresolved is how the rest of the hotel-motel tax proceeds, an estimated $60,000, would be used if the tax hike were approved.

Wivell said he wants to use that money to pay some Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission expenses. That would free up money to pay off some of the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt, he said.

Both a tax hike and a change in who would receive hotel tax proceeds requires Maryland General Assembly approval, Douglas said.

All hotel tax proceeds currently go to the privatized Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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