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Growth blamed for county's financial ills

November 21, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County needs more money for roads, emergency services and utilities to handle its population growth, state lawmakers were told Thursday.

One by one, representatives from government and community groups told the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly about their mounting needs, citing population growth as a major factor.

It seems that growth, which has been long-heralded but little seen in the county, is finally making its way west of South Mountain, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

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The delegation passed legislation earlier this year that allowed the County Commissioners to enact a real estate transfer tax and building excise fees to raise money to pay for growth issues, Shank said.

The commissioners can spend the estimated $2.4 million on school construction, public safety, transportation and debt reduction. The law requires the commissioners to set aside at least $400,000 for farmland preservation.

Washington County Public Works Director Gary Rohrer showed lawmakers pictures of crumbling roads, saying about one-quarter of the county's 832 miles of roads are in that condition.

The county fell behind in its road maintenance and now there's not enough money to catch up, he said. Most roads need to be rebuilt instead of simply repaved, which costs more but lasts longer, Rohrer said.

"The vast majority of our problems lay ahead of us and the day of reckoning has come," he said.

Making matters worse, state budget problems caused Gov. Robert Ehrlich to cut the amount of money counties get from gas tax revenues by 26 percent, said Rohrer, who urged lawmakers to prevent more cuts.

Increased traffic due to growth shortens the life of the roadways, he said.

Growth also has been stressing the volunteer emergency services in the county, said representatives of the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association, who asked lawmakers to give authority for a fire tax.

The commissioners, who ultimately would have to enact the tax, have rejected the request until a task force can come up with a detailed plan about how the tax would work.

Calls for service have been going up 6 percent a year with no corresponding increase in funding, said Jason Baer, association president.

Halfway Volunteer Fire Co. has to be ready to protect large new businesses without receiving any donations from them, Chief Jeff Ringer said.

With growth comes the need to provide water and sewer services.

But the county has too much debt and not enough money to expand its system, said Clarence Scheer, who chairs the Washington County Department of Water Quality's advisory board.

About 40 percent of the county's wells are contaminated, the Washington County Health Department said last month.

The board would like to hook up more homes to public utilities, but the cost - between $15,000 and $30,000 per household - is prohibitive, Scheer said.

The county's water and sewer system went $57 million in debt building the current system.

Since the county government took over the operation in 1995, the debt has been reduced to $47 million, he said.

The county government, which has been subsidizing the system with about $3 million a year in general fund tax money, will be able to phase out the payments by 2008-2009, he said.

Growth also is fueling the need for more school construction money, lawmakers were told earlier this month at a meeting with the Washington County Board of Education.

At that meeting, state lawmakers rejected the school board's proposal to borrow $25 million for school construction.

Lawmakers did not debate any of the requests at Thursday's meeting.

In general, lawmakers have chosen not to pursue legislative requests that have been rejected by the commissioners.

The issues will be debated after the legislature convenes its three-month session Jan. 14.

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