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Task force on county debt reduction OK'd

February 17, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - The Washington County legislative delegation voted Thursday to set up a water and sewer debt reduction task force.

The task force would explore new ways to pare the county's $52.3 million debt, and recommend ways to save money by consolidating local government agencies.

Lawmakers said they want the task force to include local government officials, members of the Board of Education, the business community and ratepayers. Its exact makeup has not been determined.

"The more ideas that are out there the better," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

The discussion took place without the delegation's two senators.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, was there via speakerphone.

"So moved," Donoghue said. The vote was unanimous.

Local officials who have been chipping away at the debt problem said they don't object to the task force, but want to make sure the effort doesn't duplicate what's been done.

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Commissioner John L. Schnebly and City Councilman William M. Breichner belong to a work group studying consolidation of city and county utilities.

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he plans to give the delegation reports on two previous efforts at tackling the problem, one by a citizens' group shortly after the debt problem was discovered in the early 1990s and another by financial experts just a few years ago.

"If they have some new ideas, we welcome any of those ideas," Snook said.

Commissioner William J. Wivell questioned the need for legislative authority for a task force. "There's certainly nothing wrong with the concept," he said.

Schnebly said he doesn't want the debt reduction effort to overshadow other pressing needs, particularly in education.

"I don't think (the debt's) so severe that we have to shut down every initiative in a growing community," Schnebly said.

The delegation did not vote on its full debt reduction proposal, which would require county government to put an extra $400,000 a year toward paying down the debt.

Lawmakers may vote on that next week, along with a proposed increase in the hotel-motel tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.

Delegation Chairman Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said lawmakers are working on changes to their legislative package based on comments from citizens at a public hearing Saturday.

The delegation would like to devote more money to debt reduction, he said.

A portion of the plan approved Wednesday would cut charities' share of tip jar gambling profits in order to raise $250,000 for debt reduction.

The current hotel-motel tax increase proposal would raise another $150,000 for debt reduction and $369,000 to be split among the municipalities based on population.

Hagerstown officials want to use their portion to build a new minor league baseball stadium.

Lawmakers had discussed polling the nine municipalities for their support on the tax increase proposal, but McKee said Thursday that won't be necessary because of the changes being made to the plan.

When all the legislation is drafted, it will be reviewed by committees of the Maryland House of Delegates. Eventually, it will need the approval of the entire Maryland General Assembly.

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