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Delegates back hotel-motel tax

March 01, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

See also: Summary of delegations tax plan

ANNAPOLIS - The Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly voted Wednesday to double the hotel-motel tax to pay for tourism, economic development and debt reduction.

cont. from front page

Although lawmakers did not take a position on whether the money should be used for a new minor league baseball stadium, their plan keeps the idea alive.

The delegation simplified its earlier plan by cutting out grants to municipalities and allowing the county to prioritize economic development and tourism projects.

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The new plan also requires the county to spend more money reducing its $52.3 million water and sewer debt.

Two of the eight lawmakers, Sen. Alex X. Mooney and Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, voted against the tax increase on principal.

A third lawmaker voted for the plan despite doubts.

"It feels like a shell game. This is too confusing," said Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington.

A majority voted to hike the hotel-motel tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, generating about $1 million a year.

The Washington County Commissioners would get 55 percent of the tax proceeds, or $550,000, to spend on economic development and tourism promotion.

The commissioners would be required to put an additional $500,000 a year toward debt reduction. That's an increase of $100,000 from an earlier delegation plan.

Half of the debt reduction money would come from the county's share of the tax increase, and half would come from cutting the charities' share of the Washington County Gaming Commission funds from 60 percent to 50 percent and increasing the share that goes to county fire and rescue groups by the same amount.

The commissioners then could cut the amount they give fire and rescue groups by a corresponding amount.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau would get 45 percent of the tax, or about the same as it now receives.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the delegation made a mistake originally offering tourism grants for municipalities.

County residents who live outside municipal boundaries were left out. And the grants to the smaller towns would have been too small to develop meaningful tourism projects, he said.

The delegation added more money for debt reduction to fulfill what lawmakers feel is a public demand, Shank said.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a debt reduction plan," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Some of the County Commissioners were frustrated that the delegation turned a stadium proposal into a debt reduction plan.

The county has been managing the debt problem and will eventually have it under control, Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said.

"The public needs to get beyond this issue. We've come a long way," said Iseminger.

Despite the debt, the county is in good financial shape and has not had to raise property or income taxes, Iseminger said.

Other commissioners said they don't object to money for debt reduction.

Shank said the delegation has been criticized for not helping the county with its water and sewer debt and now there's a plan.

"Do you want our help or not?" Shank said.

Some commissioners urged the delegation to take a vote on the stadium issue alone.

Shank, who opposes the stadium and earlier called for a stadium vote, said he wouldn't ask for one Wednesday out of a respect for other lawmakers who aren't ready to vote.

Three lawmakers wanted to put a 2003 expiration date on the tax increase, which would have effectively killed a stadium plan.

Adding an expiration date would have prevented Hagerstown from using the tax increase to borrow money for the stadium.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Shank voted for the expiration date.

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