County government rejects the idea of keeping tax-funded grant a secret

April 03, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Washington County Commissioners broke with the tradition of the previous county board and took a stand for open government on Tuesday.

Hours after the commissioners were asked whether they'd been consulted in advance about County Attorney Richard Douglas' decision to deny a citizen's request for information about a county grant - they said they weren't - Douglas found a budget document on the grant he said he could release.

Was the timing of that document's discovery coincidental, or did the commissioners prod their attorney? Either way, county government did the right thing and reinforced the principle that if someone is spending tax money, the details should be available to the public.

The temptation for government is always to fall back on a narrow definition of the law, but that approach doesn't inspire citizen' trust. It would be better if all who spend taxpayers' money could adopt the attitude endorsed by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.


In their publication, "Disclose It," the group says that it is important "that all nonprofits comply with both the letter and the spirit of the federal and state laws which require disclosure of information to the public."

The City of Hagerstown, still fighting its way out of budget problems caused by previous administrations' inattention to the root causes of the city's fiscal woes, plans to raise property taxes again next year.

The increase would amount to 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, or a $22.50 increase to a home assessed at $150,000.

The city cannot continue on this course indefinitely, but until its rental registration program begins to have a positive effect on the city's property tax base, taxpayers can only be glad the proposed hike is as small as it is.

At the same time, a proposal to double parking meter fees from 25 to 50 cents per hour makes no sense because it will only make it harder for downtown merchants to attract business. Visitors downtown try to put in only enough money to cover the length of their stay, and inevitably are delayed, resulting in a ticket.

Here's an idea that might help: Keep the meter price at 25 cents per hour, but require a two-hour minimum. Revenues should rise and shoppers may spend more time downtown.

An hourly increase with no incentive will only drive shoppers to malls and strip centers where parking is "free" because every store contributes to parking-lot maintenance through its lease.

Many who have doubts about the legitimacy of war with Iraq are afraid to speak about them, even in a free country. So said many of those who attended Tuesday night's forum on faith and war run by the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County.

The group, formed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to promote understanding between those of different faiths, is not an anti-war organization. But many who attended Tuesday said they feel that now that the war has begun, the only response acceptable to many citizens is to support U.S. troops engaged in the fighting.

It should be possible, one man said, to question the actions of one's country without being accused of being unpatriotic. Amen.

After a Minnesota-based consulting firm delivered report that recommended raises for most of the county's 630 full-time employees, Commissioner John Munson opposed the idea and said he felt "everyone in the county is adequately paid."

Some citizens, including Munson, once felt the commissioners themselves were adequately paid before they received a $10,000 raise. Now that he's gotten his, perhaps Munson will change his mind on what others get, too.

What happens if Hagerstown and Washington County governments don't settle the lawsuit over a city policy that requires those who want city-provided water and sewer service to annex?

The short answer: Developers waiting for a resolution will lose an entire construction season, because the case won't be heard until September. There's got to be an answer that doesn't involve going to court.

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