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State of the County

February 02, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Any rumors of unfettered, "exploding" growth are greatly exaggerated, Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said in a mostly rosy State of the County address Tuesday morning.

The rate that the county's population has grown - recently, about 1 percent per year - might be a little higher when 2004 estimates come out, Snook said.

For housing, the imminent growth is more pronounced. The county and the City of Hagerstown issued a combined 1,263 residential building permits in 2004, double what they issued four years earlier, a chart showed.

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"So, where are all these homes going?" Snook said. "Contrary to what some may believe, new residential subdivisions are not randomly sprouting up all over the county."

At least 80 percent of new housing is confined to a so-called Urban Growth Area, a map showed.

"Keep in mind this growth is not unexpected," Snook told the audience at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center Antietam Creek in Hagerstown. "It's something county government has been planning for - a robust economy and a vibrant community."

Each year, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce holds the breakfast forum and invites the County Commissioners president to discuss the future.

In a 20-minute address, Snook talked about how the county has excelled, and of challenges ahead.

He said the county is making "considerable headway" paying down its debt and saved $7 million in interest payments last year by refinancing bonds.

The general fund cash reserve account has reversed from $766,000 in the hole in 1995 to a surplus of $17.2 million, a chart showed.

At 3.9 percent last year, unemployment was low, while 1,600 new jobs were created and 300 jobs were kept here, Snook said.

The total assessable tax base grew by more than $900 million, one of the largest increases the county has had, he said.

Snook said the county must continue to increase funding to the public school system, where enrollment is growing by about 2.5 percent, requiring new or expanded schools.

At the same time, the share of state funding for school construction projects has dropped from a target level of 65 percent to about 20 percent, Snook said.

The same funding trend exists in other areas, such as roads, he said. The county is working on a five-year plan to invest $3 million to $5 million per year in road upgrades, he said.

"Again, this is Washington County picking up a lot of costs because of state budget cuts," he said.

To keep pace with growth, the county has put in place programs to increase revenues, including an excise tax and Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance fees on schools and roads.

The commissioners have proposed increasing an $8,500-per-unit APFO fee. They are considering boosting the fee to $13,000 for single-family homes and $15,500 for multi-family homes, Snook said.

"Essentially, we are holding growth and development responsible for its impact on the county," he said.

In a new format, three panelists grilled Snook and the other commissioners following the address.

Panelist Mark Kraham, the news director of NBC 25, asked if the runway expansion made sense while four other local airports try to add passenger service.

Snook said it's important for the county to take advantage of the federal government funding 90 percent of the runway project.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps added that the extension will cause several businesses to add high-paying jobs.

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