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Debt bills clear hurdle

April 06, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County's three-bill water and sewer debt reduction plan was approved by Senate committees Thursday, clearing a major hurdle for Maryland General Assembly passage before the session ends at midnight Monday.

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"I would expect it to go very smoothly. They really do offer us the prospect of helping to reduce the water and sewer debt," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Very few bills approved by legislative committees are killed on the Senate floor, said Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Unless an unforeseen statewide issue bottles up the legislature's waning days, the bills should pass with no problem, lawmakers said.

"I've seen it happen before. (But) I can't see any problems," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

A Senate committee approved one bill to establish a fund to reduce the $52 million debt.

Committees approved two more bills that will raise at least $500,000 a year for the Washington County Commissioners to put in the fund.

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"Everybody worked hard to do this. The debt reduction aspect of this was my top legislative priority since I was elected," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

If the package is approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Parris Glendening, water and sewer customers would see no rate hikes this year. Future increases would be limited to 3 percent a year.

Over 10 years, the debt would be reduced to $19 million.

Without the plan, the County Commissioners are on track to reduce the debt to $24 million in 10 years. Rate increases would be 2 percent next year and 3.5 percent in future years.

The plan would be funded by doubling the hotel tax to 6 percent and diverting some tip jar gambling money from charities to the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association. The commissioners would be able to decrease funding for the Fire and Rescue Association by a comparable amount.

In addition, the hotel tax increase would raise about $300,000 for economic development and tourism, including a new minor league baseball stadium.

The Washington County Commissioners will decide how to spend the tax proceeds.

"It does not stand in the way of a stadium. But it can't be interpreted as a stadium plan. It puts the responsibility for a stadium where it belongs - with the city and county government," Munson said.

Before the tax money could be spent on a stadium, the legislation requires supporters to complete a new cost and impact study.

The County Commissioners and the Hagerstown City Council would have to approve the new stadium plan. State lawmakers will review it.

The Budget and Taxation Committee unanimously approved the hotel tax hike, ending earlier concerns that opposition from Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, would hurt the bill.

Meanwhile, in his committee, Mooney was able to answer a technical question about the tip jar gambling changes raised by Judical Proceedings Committee Chairman Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Eastern Shore. That bill easily passed.

Meanwhile, the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee unexpectedly approved the debt reduction plan.

When McKee arrived to testify on its behalf, Chairman Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City, told him the committee had already voted to pass the local bill.

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