Debt, stadium plan detailed

February 03, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County lawmakers have come up with a plan they say will pay down the county's water and sewer debt and finance tourism projects such as a minor league baseball stadium for Hagerstown.

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The plan would double the county's hotel-motel tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

It also would cut 10 percent of the amount of tip jar funds distributed to charities through the Washington County Gaming Commission.

The local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly sees the plan as a compromise of earlier stadium plans by Hagerstown and Washington County elected officials.

It would also accomplish something lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to do for years - help relieve water and sewer customers of their debt burden.


The plan would take three pieces of legislation.

One bill would require the Washington County Commissioners to put $400,000 a year toward paying off the county pre-treatment plant's $9 million debt, which is part of the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, the plan's primary author, compared the two parts of the debt to a household's car payment versus mortgage payment. If you can pay off your car, you'll have more money in your household budget, he said.

"We understand that our future progress in Washington County is somewhat tied to reducing this debt. We are going to provide oversight," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Any profits that the pre-treatment plant makes must be used to stabilize or reduce water and sewer rates. After years in the red, the plant is breaking even, and it's expected to begin making money thanks to two years of nationwide marketing.

"We just want to make sure that if we make these changes, the money goes to debt reduction, not government growth," said Shank, R-Washington.

The county would get the money for debt reduction because of money generated by the hotel-motel tax increase and a change in Gaming Commission funding.

Doubling the room tax would bring in a total of $923,578, based on last year's revenues, the plan says.

The Washington County Economic Development Commission would get 15 percent of that, which would free up $138,536 for the county to put in the pre-treatment debt fund.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau would get 45 percent, an amount that nearly equals what it now receives.

The rest of the room tax would be divided among the county's nine municipalities to pay for tourism and economic development projects of their choice.

"This is like a block grant to those people who provide the things that tourists want to see," Munson said.

The city would get $283,353, which is less than the $320,000 they expected to get from the two percentage point room tax increase earlier proposed by the city and county.

"This is a compromise to give the city almost all of the money they asked for," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, who was the only delegation member to support the earlier plan.

Shank said he didn't think it would be fair to give Hagerstown a share and not the other eight towns, which would split $86,078 based on their size.

Those totals will grow if the hotel-motel tax brings in more money, which lawmakers believe will happen because 130 new hotel rooms are being built this year and 83 more are planned for next year.

The final piece of the puzzle calls for a change in the funding formula of the county Gaming Commission, which distributes profits from tip jar gambling.

Under the current formula, county fire and rescue companies get 40 percent of the money raised and charities get 60 percent.

The plan calls for a 50-50 split. The boost to fire and rescue would enable the county to cut its contribution by a comparable amount and would help the county offset more of the money going into the pre-treatment debt fund.

The four lawmakers who represent Washington County have been finalizing the complex plan over the last few days, building consensus among all eight members of the delegation and local elected officials.

They must still take a formal vote but believe they have the votes for it to pass.

Meanwhile, they're willing to accept feedback and may fine-tune the plan, said Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

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