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Limited support is shown for stadium

February 12, 2000|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

A forum Saturday showed there is more public support for paying off Washington County's massive water and sewer debt than there is for building a new baseball stadium.

More than half of the 45 people who spoke on a plan to help pay off the debt and provide money for projects such as a new baseball stadium favored providing more money for the debt. But almost as many people said they were against any plan that provides money for a new stadium.

Many who spoke did not address the stadium issue.

Almost 200 people attended the meeting to hear their state lawmakers explain the three proposed pieces of legislation that make up their plan. The bills would double the county hotel-motel tax to 6 percent, adjust the distribution of tip jar proceeds, and call upon the Washington County Commissioners to allocate at least $400,000 a year for sewer debt reduction.

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During the forum the state lawmakers tried to distance themselves, and their proposed legislation, from the controversial stadium plan. The legislators said their proposal is focused on attacking the county's $52.3 million sewer debt, and will provide grant funding to each municipality in the county for unspecified "tourism and economic development" projects.

The City of Hagerstown would receive about $283,000, which city officials plan to spend on a proposed $12 million to $15 million baseball stadium and railroad museum complex.

Almost every side of the debate was aired during the nearly three-hour forum held in the auditorium at South Hagerstown High School.

Hotel and motel owners said increasing the county's hotel-motel tax to the proposed 6 percent would be unfair because no other taxes are being raised. The tax is currently 3 percent.

"We have been targeted," said Richard Pelligrino, with the Plaza Hotel and Hampton Inn.

"If we could raise prices without getting a reduction in sales, we would have done it," he said.

State Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Washington/Frederick, said he opposes a tax increase.

But others disagreed that the proposed room tax increase would hurt the hotel business.

"When I travel I don't worry about the room taxes," said Jack Griffith, a Hagerstown resident who favored the delegation's plan.

Four people said they opposed changing the way tip jar proceeds would be divided among nonprofit organizations and fire and rescue companies. The proposed change would decrease the amount available for nonprofits by about $258,000, and instead that money would go to fire and rescue companies.

"This squeezes money out of the charities," said Tom Berry of Rohrersville.

Berry said the water and sewer debt "needs to be addressed," but he opposes spending public money on a new stadium.

Berry was also one of six people who said the delegation should put all the money generated by the proposed legislative changes toward debt reduction.

"Take the whole (tax increase) and put it to the sewer debt," said Dennis Martin, whose comment prompted applause from the audience.

Others rose just to make known their opposition to providing public money for a new baseball stadium.

Ira P. Kauffman Jr., a candidate for Hagerstown City Council, said he opposes spending tax money on a new stadium.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, responded, "I have traditionally not supported construction of stadium with public money."

Shank said he would rather see the money spent on downtown Hagerstown revitalization projects or a proposed Civil War museum.

But it would be up to the municipalities to decide how to spend what money they received under the plan, Shank said.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington County, added, "I think there are better projects than a stadium, but we're making block grants (with this proposal)."

Thirteen people said they liked all or almost all aspects of the plan, including the anticipated use of some of the money for a new baseball stadium. But four of those people spoke against capping the amount of money that would go to the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Currently, the hotel-motel tax funds the visitors bureau, but the amount of money that would go to the bureau after an increase in the tax would be capped at $500,000 a year.

"A cap on CVB is going to tie our hands in the future," said Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, long a strong supporter of building a new stadium.

Overall, 25 people said they favored the plan to pay off the water and sewer debt.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said Saturday was a "turning point in the war on the water and sewer debt."

Munson said the debt has been a "cancer" on the county, which has taken money away from more worthy areas like education and public safety.

Bonnie Parks, a member of the county's Water and Sewer Advisory Commission, said, "Our debt is much too high and this proposal is, at a minimum, a step in the right direction."

McKee, chairman of the county delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, said there are still several issues to discuss, including whether to exempt smaller hotels and motels from the proposed tax.

Munson said capping the funds for the visitors bureau and the nonprofits are issues he thinks may be revisited by the delegation.

McKee said the county delegation will vote Wednesday or a week from Wednesday on whether to send the proposed bills for a vote by the entire state Legislature.

Munson said there are probably enough county delegates who support the plan for the bills to get through.

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