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Chatting online with ... County Commissioner James Kercheval

July 31, 2005

Editor's note: What follows are edited excerpts from an online chat that took place with Washington County Commissioner James Kercheval on Monday, July 25. For the full text and a schedule of future guests, go to www.herald-mail.com and click on "online chats."




Moderator: Now that you have closed your barbecue restaurant, will you be a full-time commissioner or re-open Kerch's somewhere else?

Kercheval: I've been a full-time commissioner since elected, which made running the restaurant difficult. We currently have not made a final decision. My ultimate goal is something that's not open seven days a week. My wife and two little boys have enjoyed having me home more often during the last six months. We hope to decide within the next couple of months.

Moderator: Why did it take years to come up with a rural rezoning plan that nearly everyone agrees is flawed?

Kercheval: Whenever you are working on an issue this complex, I doubt it's possible to come to a resolution that everyone will support. One area I believe that we can improve upon is to get more public involvement early. In the rural rezoning, we had multiple public meetings with very little attendance and most of the public comment came at (the) end of the process. Other counties put together a public task force at the beginning of the comprehensive rezoning process. We should do that when we rezone the urban areas.

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Also, during this process, Washington County was in transition from a slow-growing to a fast-growing county. After seeing the impact of a couple years of high growth, we all have a better perspective of how our growth is going to continue in the future and what impact it's going to have.

Moderator: A lot of time has been spent on the 2-plus-2 meetings between yourself, Commissioner Doris Nipps and City Council members Kristin Aleshire and Lewis Metzner. Has anything specific been accomplished?

Kercheval: The major accomplishment has been a much increased level of communication between the two bodies. Through this group we've developed a very close relationship, and, in turn, created an environment in which we can comment on the issues without causing friction.

I know it's been said that this group should have produced some sort of written accomplishment by now, but we were waiting for resolution of several key issues that directly affected any kind of comprehensive agreement. We continue to meet nearly every week to work on some tough issues such as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, sewer allocation. I'm sure in the weeks to come we'll discuss the hospital issue. Just some small areas where each side has seen progress is tax credits in revitalization areas and changes in some of the county ordinances such as the excise tax, etc.

Moderator: As a result of the near-record rise in the value of real estate in Maryland, other counties cut their property taxes to ease the property-tax load on their residents. Why didn't that happen in Washington County?

Kercheval: We are still considering adjustment in the tax structure. However, we are still waiting to see what happens with several items. For example: In three years, the county will open three new elementary schools, the first new schools since Eastern Elementary opened. When they open, we will have to absorb their operational costs and have some concern over that impact to the budget.

Remember, nearly 60 percent of our general fund budget goes to education. In addition, we've experienced a variety of state cuts resulting from state budget shortfalls. Up until recently, the economic outlook for the state has been questionable, so we've been cautious about lowering fees now only to have to raise them later, should other cuts take place.

It's also important for people to know that we have applied these excess funds to capital expenses and the county's reserve fund. Currently, the county has a cash reserve fund of about 13 percent of its budget. To be fiscally responsible, that number should be about 17 percent, or about two months' worth of cash. The bonding agencies have instructed us to continue working towards this goal.

As far as capital needs go, we are experiencing a need for more capital improvements than in the past. Our six-year Capital Improvement Program budget has gone from $264 million in Fiscal Year 2005 to more than $446 million in FY 2006. If we want to keep up with our transportation needs and school needs, we will have to invest more in infrastructure than we have in the past.

Also, much of the increased revenue we've seen is from higher than normal recordation tax activity from new growth. This form of revenue can fluctuate greatly year to year, so it's important we do not build it into our baseline for government operations.




Name: Steve Thomas

Location: Work in Rockville

Question: With all the time and effort you have put into the job as commissioner, doing an outstanding job for the citizens of Washington County, do you plan on running for re-election?

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