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Debt plan clears House panel

March 22, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - A Maryland House of Delegates committee Tuesday approved Washington County's water and sewer debt reduction plan.

Legislative committees today will review two other bills that would raise $500,000 to be applied toward the $52 million debt.

The three-bill plan must pass the House of Delegates by Monday if it is to have a chance of passing the Maryland General Assembly this session.

Tuesday's stamp of approval by the Commerce and Government Matters Committee was a big step, local lawmakers said.

"It bodes well that it's moved so quickly and without any objections through my committee," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

The committee voted unanimously on the bill just hours after hearing testimony from Shank, Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, and Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell.

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Shank gave the committee a brief history about the debt, which was at about $60 million when the County Commissioners took over the Washington County Sanitary District in 1995.

An additional $500,000 a year for debt reduction would help bring the total debt down to $19 million in 10 years, Water and Sewer Director Greg Murray said Tuesday.

An unintended benefit will also be smaller rate increases, county and state officials learned Tuesday.

The debt reduction fund isn't being used to subsidize rates, but would result in smaller rate increases because the rates are based on the amount of debt service, which would be lower, Wivell said.

The county legislative delegation did not want to give the County Commissioners a loophole to use the debt reduction fund to replace the subsidy. But the bill was amended to give the County Commissioners more flexibility on water and sewer funding decisions, Shank said.

Today, the focus shifts to the two bills funding the debt reduction plan. One would double the county's hotel tax to 6 percent and the other would send more tip jar gambling money to the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association. That would free up an equal amount for the county to use for debt reduction.

The debt reduction bill is contingent on the passage of the other two bills, Shank said.

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

The tax hike would raise an estimated $250,000 for debt reduction and $300,000 for tourism. It requires the Maryland Stadium Authority to complete a study before any of the money could be used to construct a minor league baseball stadium in Hagerstown.

A hearing on changes to the tip jar gambling law is set for 1 p.m. today in the House Judiciary Committee.

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