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Debt, fire/rescue top county issues

February 03, 2000

Because the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce has decided that it won't hold any of its breakfast meetings on days when schools are canceled or on a two-hour delay, this week's "State of the County" meeting was postponed.

That left me with a fistful of questions, which I won't be able to get answered until next Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 7:30 a.m., when the rescheduled meeting is to be held at Hagerstown's Four Points Hotel. If you're there, expect to hear answers to the following questions:

- What's the current state of the county's water/sewer debt, and are county budget writers giving serious thought to Commissioner William Wivell's plan to trim county expenses?

In case you came in late, here's the background: Back in 1989, acting against the advice of its consultant, a previous Board of County Commissioners built a new sewage-treatment plant along the Conococheague Creek. The board then failed to market the plant's capacity, or raise rates in a timely fashion to cover costs.

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Debts of more than $50 million piled up, and the county now contributes $2 million from its general fund to keep water/sewer rates affordable. Various plans have been advanced to pay off the debt, including Commissioner Paul Swartz's proposal to hike the state sales tax by 1 percent, but none had won legislative or popular approval, until last October.

That's when Commissioner Wivell, a number cruncher for Allegheny Power, issued a 14-page plan he said would save the county $56.4 million over the next five years.

It would cap general fund spending increases at 2.5 percent, limit annual borrowing to $10 million and enact a 10-cents-per-ton tax on stone quarried in the county, among other things?

Some commissioners have told me privately they feel the plan is too drastic, but given the lack of other choices, what's the alternative? State Sen. Don Munson's call to tie new stadium funding in with sewer debt reduction briefly raised my hopes that he had an idea on how to do this, but if so, he hasn't shared it yet.

- Last October, the commissioners asked the county's Emergency Services Council to review a consultant report on fire and rescue services which recommended a fire tax. Their recommendation was originally due in February, but may be delayed somewhat. Whenever it arrives, if it backs up the fire-tax recommendations, will the county board go along?

No tax increase is welcome, but the day is fast approaching when it won't be possible to attract enough volunteers who can keep up with ever-increasing training requirements and run bingo games, too.

Some companies are opposed to a fire tax, perhaps because they know it will change the relationship between citizens and firefighters, who cherish their independence.

Then there's the problem of Community Rescue Service, which handles the majority of the ambulance calls in the county, and is having major budget problems because it serves the county's poorest areas, making it difficult to either fund-raise or bill insurance companies for services rendered.

- In early December, County Schools Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., asked the county for a 10 percent increase in county funds, to bring the school budget to $120 million.

The new money would be used to make teachers' salaries more competitive, to add seven new high school reading teachers and three new guidance counselors.

Bartlett and company's main argument for more cash, however, is that back in 1990, the school system's share of the county budget was 57 percent. Over the past 10 years, it has dropped to 52.9 percent.

"We don't need a tax increase," Bartlett said, but added that "we need a new prioritization in the county's budget."

Given the county's other financial difficulties, is Bartlett's request realistic?

- What can county government do to promote the revitalization of downtown Hagerstown?

This question took on more importance after Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening decided to make downtown the site for a new University System of Maryland campus.

The project, whose success seemed assured when it was sited on Allegheny Power's Freedom Technology Park, will now require a great deal of additional work.

Instead of each access from Interstate 70 and acres of parking, the project will now require students to commute into the center city. Business and community leaders say they're determined to make this thing work. As a major tenant downtown, and a government pledged to improve the county seat, what will be the county's share of this project?

If you've never been to a chamber event, call (301) 7329-2015, for information on reservations and fees. Breakfast meetings are usually over by 9:30 a.m.


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