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Study compares counties' debt level

May 01, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

A consultant says a preliminary study of Washington County's debt levels shows it is slightly above average compared to five similar counties but not the highest in any comparisons conducted.

The $25,000 study was done by Government Finance Officers Association, a Chicago-based organization of public finance professionals.

After hearing concerns of county employees about the county's $52.3 million water and sewer debt, the group expected the results to be poorer than they actually were, Jennifer Ritter Douglas, an association policy analyst, told the County Commissioners during Tuesday's meeting.

The county's total debt is about $143 million, according to Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian.

The county is tentatively scheduled to incur about $13 million in debt service later this year, Bastian said.

The commissioners voted in November 1999 to pay the group to do the study, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said. The vote was 3-2, with Commissioners Paul L. Swartz and Commissioner William J. Wivell opposed.

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Wivell said he voted against the proposal because he thought the work could have been done in-house, saving the county $25,000.

"The only thing they brought to the table was the availability of the database," he said Wednesday.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said the county commissioned the study in order to have an outside organization assess the county's debt situation.

"We are not where we want to be, but we are in pretty good shape," Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger said.

The group compared Washington County with Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties in Maryland as well as with some counties outside Maryland.

One comparison was of the percentage of general fund money going to debt service. With 9.8 percent of the $106 million 1999 General Fund budget going to debt service, Washington County was the third highest, behind Carroll and Howard counties, according to budget documents.

In a comparison of direct debt per capita, Washington County was third highest of the six counties at $1,078 per person.

That is about twice the Frederick County figure of $529, but Bastian said the reason is Frederick County has impact fees to pay for some projects.

The study's findings will be used to help the county plan for the future, Shoop said.

Douglas said the county should request an upgrade in its bond rating. Her company could not predict whether the county could get it but thought it was worth an attempt, she said.

Washington County is rated A+ by Standard and Poor's and A1 by Moody's.

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