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School report shows again that growth has hefty costs

October 07, 2004

On Tuesday, Washington County taxpayers got a glimpse of what rapid residential growth could cost the county in the next few years.

It gives us no pleasure now to point out the error of those who argued in years past that no additional fees were needed because the county was growing so slowly.

But this does provide another opportunity for local residents to ask themselves whether they would rather share in paying for the cost of new development or preserve some of the open space that exists now.

In a report this week, William Blum, the school system's chief operating officer, showed that enrollment increased by 448 students from September 2003 to September 2004.

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By the same month in 2005, another 519 students are expected, Blum said, by virtue of the fact that the local school system is in a "super-growth county."

To deal with that, the school system is proposing $123 million in new construction and improvements to existing schools.

Those projects will include a new elementary school and a new high school on the eastern edge of Hagerstown and $27 million to purchase land and build a new elementary school in the St. James area.

The commissioners, who previously rejected the idea of allowing the school system to issue bonds to deal with its backlog of construction, may have to reconsider that idea.

Consider this, however: Even if the construction of all these facilities were covered by existing fees and taxes, there will be an ongoing cost to staff the new and enlarged schools.

Look at what the school system's per-pupil expenditure is each year, then compare that to your local tax bill. It's clear that residential development doesn't cover the cost of the services new residents require.

Unless there is also industrial or commercial development, guess who gets to make up the difference? The existing taxpayers, that's who.

Now, as the county commissioners consider whether to implement their proposed rezoning, county residents need to decide whether they want to pay for new development or contribute to the preservation of open space.

Don't let anyone kid you: there is no free lunch, no choice that won't involve some cost. Before the commissioners make a decision, let them know which option you favor.

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