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Cuts or tax hikes? Hopefuls must say

July 25, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades this week said that his 59 deputies are underpaid, leading to a situation in which his department pays to train officers, only to see them leave for higher-paying posts elsewhere.

The issue highlights the need for candidates for county commissioners to look at where they might find new revenue or cut existing programs.

The average pay for local deputies in 2000 was $34,611, almost $8,000 lower than the state average, according to Maryland and U.S. labor agencies. Compared to the $27,000 annual starting salary here, Frederick County officers start at $33,000.

It would be foolish for Washington County to attempt to keep pace with salaries in the wealthier counties. But if, as Mades says, deputies are being trained here and quickly moving on to higher-paying departments, then taxpayers are losing the benefit of training they've paid for.

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Commissioner Paul Swartz's proposed solution is a variation on his previous tax proposal, which sought a one-cent rise in the state's sales-tax rate, with the proceeds of that one-penny hike rebated to the counties where it was collected.

Swartz's latest idea would increase Washington County's sales tax by a penny, then cut property taxes by three cents to offset that.

But the last time around, Swartz was told that his proposal would go against Maryland General Assembly tradition, in which sales tax revenue goes to the state's general fund.

Could Swartz's idea find favor under a new governor? Perhaps, but the next county board faces increased costs for a number of items, including site work for the University System of Maryland's downtown Hagerstown campus.

The key questions for candidates are: What programs or services can be cut, or how can revenues be raised? Swartz's plan may or may not work, but it is a plan. Candidates for county office who don't have a plan of their own may find that come election day, they don't have any votes either.

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