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Assembly to take up debt plan

March 20, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County's water and sewer debt reduction plan, funded through a hotel tax increase and tip jar gambling profits, faces its first scrutiny by the Maryland General Assembly this week.

Committee hearings will be held on each of the plan's three components this week.

To have a reasonable chance of passing the legislature this session, the bills must be approved by the committees and the full House of Delegates by Monday. Although the session doesn't end until April 10, Monday is the deadline for House bills to be sent to the Senate.

A hearing on the debt reduction part of the plan is scheduled for 1 p.m. today in the Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

The Washington County Delegation wants the Washington County Commissioners to put an extra $500,000 a year toward paying down its $52.3 million water and sewer debt.

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The commissioners say the plan needs some fine-tuning. They said that as written, it doesn't give them enough budgeting flexibility.

To raise money for the plan, the local legislative delegation has come up with two ways of boosting the county's income.

First, lawmakers would cut charities' share of Washington County Gaming Commission funds by $250,000 annually and give it to the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association.

The county could then reduce its fire and rescue contribution by an equal amount.

The Fire and Rescue Association opposes the move, although its government subsidy would not change under the plan.

Other changes to the 1995 tip jar law would promote more gambling at bars by allowing tavern owners to keep half of tip jar profits. Under the current law, bars pay $45 a jar or 50 percent of the profits, whichever is less.

A hearing on the gaming changes is set for 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Judiciary Committee.

Second, lawmakers want to double the hotel-motel tax to 6 percent, which would provide about $250,000 for the debt and an estimated $300,000 a year for tourism.

The County Commissioners are meeting with the Hagerstown City Council today to discuss how much of the hotel tax would be earmarked for a new minor league baseball stadium.

The bill also requires local officials to come up with a detailed stadium plan before the hotel tax money can be spent on construction.

A hearing on the tax hike is set for 1 p.m. Thursday in the Ways and Means Committee.

All three bills are contingent on each other to pass.

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