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Budget a big challenge

January 03, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - As the new year gets under way, Washington County government will begin preparing for one of its biggest challenges for 2003: Balancing the county's approximately $130 million budget for fiscal year 2004.

In addition, the Washington County Commissioners also will begin rezoning work required by the comprehensive plan, make changes to an ordinance dealing with school and road capacities, decide whether to lift the moratorium on rural residential development and hear the results of studies dealing with employee wages and the structure of county government.

A push for state funding for the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway extension project and discussions about privatizing the Economic Development Commission are also expected to continue in 2003.

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BUDGET


As a result of the economic downturn of the past two years, the commissioners and county administrators have said balancing the county's 2004 fiscal year budget will not be easy. Work on that budget, which goes into effect July 1, begins this winter.

The commissioners have said the amount of state funding the county receives may be decreased. The county also is considering pushing for legislation that would give the commissioners the ability to impose a transfer or excise tax to generate additional revenue.

The county also is considering asking for legislation that would remove limitations on the areas in which the commissioners can impose impact fees.

County officials say a 1 percent transfer tax, which is a tax on real estate transactions, could generate $1.2 million in revenue that could go toward capital projects for education, urban redevelopment, agricultural and historic preservation and other projects.

An excise tax also is charged on new development, but it doesn't have the restrictions that impact fees do. An excise tax would give the commissioners more flexibility in spending the money, officials have said.

Impact fees are fees collected from developers on new construction. The fees help pay for the expanded public services needed because of growth.

The county has had the authority to collect impact fees since 1990, but it has not done so because of restrictions in place that govern where the fees can be collected and how the money can be spent.

The commissioners, however, said that just because they would have the ability to impose transfer or excise taxes doesn't mean they would do so.

Rezoning


The county must rewrite its zoning ordinance to accommodate its comprehensive plan, which was approved by the commissioners in August. A main point of the comprehensive plan is to direct growth to designated growth areas, which requires the rewriting of the zoning ordinance.

The rezoning process could take two years or more, county officials have said.

Under the plan, which could be amended at any time, one unit is allowed for every 5 acres on land with an agricultural zoning. Currently, one unit per acre is allowed in the agricultural zone.

It also allows one unit per 20 acres in land zoned environmental conservation and one unit per 30 acres in preservation zones. Both designations are new.

The changes do not affect lots already approved for development and do not affect the number of homes that can be built inside the Urban Growth Area, which is an area where growth is encouraged, officials have said.

Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance


The county is working on making amendments to the ordinance, which requires developers to provide information showing adequate road, water, sewage and schools capacity before a project can be approved. The developer must contribute toward any needed improvements.

Amendments must be made to conform with the comprehensive plan, county officials said.

Moratorium


The ban on major residential development in rural areas will be up for review by the commissioners. The commissioners approved the moratorium in October, which may last up to a year if they decide not to lift it. The approval came with the provision that the commissioners must discuss the moratorium after it had been in place for six months, but Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Friday those talks would come sooner than that.

The moratorium applies to residential subdivisions of six or more lots on land outside the designated Urban or Town Growth areas where growth is encouraged. It does not apply to the issuance of building permits, Planning Director Robert Arch has said.

It also does not apply to subdivisions that have been accepted for filing by the planning department.

It does apply to developers who have had preliminary discussions with the planning department but whose plans have not been accepted for filing.

Employee wage study


The commissioners voted in November to conduct a $61,530 study that will recommend whether county employees should receive pay raises in fiscal year 2004, after hearing concerns from the county's human resources director that the current salary levels make it difficult to attract and keep qualified employees.

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