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Stadium proceeds as today's county board pays yesterday's bills

May 05, 2000

If you're a staunch supporter or opponent of a new minor league baseball stadium in Hagerstown and couldn't figure out whether to cheer or boo events of the past week, don't feel bad.

The City Council voted to move forward with funding for engineering studies and a majority of the County Commissioners indicated they would do the same.

But further on in the story were a couple red flags. First, the state is apparently going to be asked to pay for half the cost. That's twice as much as state government generally contributes to stadium projects, and may be a reach.

More ominous is Councilman Wally McClure's continued rumblings about forcing the issue to referendum. He does not believe it would pass a vote of the people, and he's right.

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And while we're at it, here are some more things that would not survive a vote of the people if it meant spending their tax money: Construction of a new school; widening of an unsafe and congested road; raising teacher pay (not to mention members of council); building a park; building a library, or giving a construction grant to any charity you care to name.

If they thought it would save them $10 a year on their taxes they would happily vote for an ordinance banning piano franchises from city lines.

There's a reason the Founding Fathers insisted on representative government instead of a purely democratic series of national referendums on the issues. (Think the same folks who oppose the stadium would like to see a national referendum on handgun ownership? Hardly.)

People will vote for a thing as it relates to them personally, the good of the community be damned. Since more people pay taxes than go to ball games, who would you expect to prevail?

But remember, if the majority always ruled, women today wouldn't have the right to vote. Then where would we be?

Commissioners characterized this week's tax increase as one necessitated by increased demands from schools and police. But before you blame your local neighborhood school teacher or sheriff's deputy for the increase, consider this:

From 1995 to 2000, the county's revenue has risen from $82 million to $113 million. Meanwhile, the county's contribution to education has increased during the same time period from $54 million to $65 million.

Historically, better than half of a county tax dollar has gone toward education. But of the county's "new" revenue over the past five years, only about 35 cents if it on the dollar has been passed on to education.

The county has been flush with cash during these economically good years and it's not all being siphoned off by the schools, as the commissioners might have you believe.

Yet even with a $30 million increase in the last five years and a decreasing percentage going to education, commissioners still were so strapped they needed a tax hike to balance the budget.

What's going on? One clue can be found in the increase of county personnel over the past five years. The county has gone from 728 full- and part-time employees in 1995 to 970 in 2000.

And the more people you employ, the more materials they use, the more space they need, the more cars they drive and so on. County government in the past five years has simply gotten a lot bigger - to the point a new office building had to be purchased to house it all.

The second critical item is that the water and sewer debt is still eating up cash out of the general fund, cash which ought to be going to schools or roads or staying in the taxpayers' pockets from whence it came.

Some officials have taken the revisionist line that the sewer and water debt was overblown. That would depend on your definition of overblown. But the fact remains that more than a quarter of the county's new income over the past five years has gone straight to the sewers.

Put another way, the commissioners could have fully funded the school budget during this time were it not for the sewer debt. Or they could have used the money to pre-empt this week's tax increase.

In voting for a tax increase, Commissioners Bert Iseminger, John Schnebly and Paul Swartz were simply owning up to, and paying for, the debts of big government and the sewer district that were allowed to escalate under past boards of commissions. Notably, Commissioners President Greg Snook was a member of former boards that locked in all that spending, yet he voted against the tax hike needed to pay for it all.

That must be nice. To be part and parcel to bloated government spending for years, then come off politically clean by voting against a tax increase because new, more responsible commissioners are willing to step up and pay your bills for you - at considerable political risk to themselves.

It's not the schools or the deputies that have forced this tax increase. Iseminger, Schnebly and Swartz simply did what had to be done - pay for the debts run up by Snook and his brethren through the bulk of the '90s. The three new commissioners should not be vilified for helping correct sins of the past.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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