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As county seeks new taxes, where's the plan to cut costs?

January 24, 2003

Faced with a major cut in state funding, the Washington County Commissioners are in the unenviable position of having to raise taxes or cut services. Voters should understand the need to do something, but should not forget how little the county government has done so far to explore cutting its costs.

After a Wednesday trip to Annapolis to see the Washington County delegation, the commissioners were still not in agreement on whether they want an excise tax, a real estate transfer tax, or a combination of both.

An excise tax would apply only to new construction, an option opposed by the builders, developers and tradespeople. A transfer tax would affect all property transfers, which some have opposed because it would affect existing residents of the community, as opposed to newcomers.

Commissioners' President Gregory Snook said an excise tax wouldn't raise enough cash. What he didn't say, but undoubtedly knows, is that it would be politically risky as well, given the building industry's political clout.

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Del. Christopher Shank, who opposed the transfer tax the last time around, favored the excise tax, saying it would target those people moving into the county who add to growth here. However, that argument assumes that the only people buying new houses here are people relocating from somewhere else.

Del. John Donoghue's observation that the commissioners aren't united on their tax strategy is on target. The county board should figure out what its proposal is, and quickly.

But any decision to raise taxes should come with a promise to get serious about exploring ways to merge Washington County and Hagerstown departments. The real cost of government is in personnel and without a plan to trim the work force over time, costs will continue to increase.

In this matter, state Sen. Alex Mooney was on target when he asked what happened to a cost-cutting plan Commissioner William Wivell authored several years ago.

The answer: It hasn't been reviewed by the new county board yet. Our question: When is that going to happen?

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