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County split on stadium plan

February 04, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

A new state stadium funding plan that incorporates paying down the water and sewer debt and offsetting future rate hikes was applauded Friday by Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell.

However, Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger objects to a state plan, written by members of the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, that tells the county how it should spend some of its money.

"That's the job of Washington County Commissioners: to prioritize where the money should go," he said.

He also has a problem with a plan connecting the stadium and the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt.

"I personally don't see how the two are connected," Iseminger said.

In a Dec. 29 letter to state lawmakers, Wivell requested any stadium funding plan include money to pay off the water and sewer debt. The new plan for the $12 million to $15 million stadium does that.

Maybe someone has listened to his pleas for debt reduction after all, Wivell said.

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Wivell said the plan is not perfect because he still thinks it gives too much taxpayer money to the stadium. He opposes taxpayer funding of a stadium.

"I think the emphasis needs to be debt first," he said. "But it is better than nothing," Wivell said.

The plan, if approved by the Maryland General Assembly, requires the Washington County Commissioners to put $400,000 a year into a fund used to pay off the county pre-treatment plant's $9 million debt.

Any profits the pre-treatment plant makes must be used to stabilize or reduce water and sewer rates. After years in the red, the plant is expected to break even this year.

The county has spent about $1.6 million in general fund subsidies on the $9 million Conococheague Industrial Pre-Treatment Plant since it opened in 1994, said Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian. It has also given $9.77 million in grants to the wastewater and sewer funds, Bastian said.

The subsidies are grants the County Commissioners does not expect to be repaid, which has not been a popular move, Bastian noted.

She objects to the state telling the county how to fix its problem.

"It is a mandate, and there's a lot of public controversy on the existing contributions," she said.

Water and Sewer Director Greg Murray said the proposed five-year plan for the pre-treatment fund called for $350,000 in general fund subsidies in fiscal 2001, $300,000 in fiscal 2002, $150,000 in 2003 and no funding in 2004.

The new plan wouldn't necessarily speed up how long it takes to eliminate the debt, he said. However, it would offset rate increases and pay off some of the debt.

Murray said he needs to hear more about the plan before he can react to it.

County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said he supports the $400,000 commitment but predicted the other commissioners might not like it as much.

Commissioner John L. Schnebly said he had no problem with the general plan but wanted to hear more before endorsing specific details.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook could not be reached for comment Friday.

The $400,000 in general fund money would be freed up from two other changes that are part of the plan, which will require three legislative changes.

Under the plan, the Washington County Economic Development Commission would receive 15 percent of a proposed increase in the hotel-motel tax to 6 percent from its present 3 present. That 15 percent would be about $138,536, according to the proposal.

Another estimated $258,964 would be freed up by 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, which would free up money the county now gives to fire companies.

It will also mean, though, a decrease of 10 percent - or $250,000 a year - in funds to charities.

By a 3-2 vote, the Washington County Commissioners decided Dec. 14 to ask the state to increase the hotel tax to 5 percent, which is intended to pay their $3 million commitment to the stadium.

Raising it to 6 percent would bring in a total of $923,578, based on last year's revenues, the plan says.

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