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Snook says county in good financial shape, and still proactive

February 08, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

andrews@herald-mail.com

With a rising surplus and declining debt, a growing Washington County has kept its finances strong, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said Tuesday morning in a State of the County address.

Snook recalled his first address, in 1995, when the county had no cash reserve. More than a decade later, the county expects to fully fund its reserve goal of $28 million, he said.

Last year, Washington County earned its first-ever AA bond rating, a measure of high credit quality. The county has saved more than $13 million in interest costs by refinancing its debt, Snook said.

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The county also is making strides in managing growth, funding education, preparing residents for emergencies and nourishing its work force, Snook told a packed room at the Four Points Sheraton on Dual Highway.

Asked later about government's need to be efficient and frugal yet proactive, Snook said business people know that "if you're standing still, you're not doing anything."

The Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce annually hosts the State of the County, in which local community and business leaders gather to hear about the county's well-being. At the end, they ask anonymous follow-up questions.

This year, a record number of questions were asked, said moderator Suzanne Hayes, including some from the audience and some from a list prepared in advance.

The first question was for each commissioner to name what he or she considers the most critical issue this year.

Snook said school construction.

Commissioner John C. Munson said emergency services. Commissioner James F. Kercheval said regional planning.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said her public service roots are in education, but she is becoming more concerned about whether people who work in public safety are adequately paid.

Commissioner William J. Wivell named preservation of agricultural land and the industry that goes with it.

The State of the City address, the equivalent event for Hagerstown, is scheduled for March 7.

The address is given each year by the mayor, but with the Feb. 1 resignation of Richard F. Trump, the city is without a mayor.

Snook said the county has collected $7 million to $8 million through an excise tax on new construction. The majority of the money helps pay for school building projects.

The county fully funded the Washington County Board of Education's budget request last year and is using county surplus money to help the school system with a backlog of building improvements, Snook said.

"Our commitment to funding will continue," he said, noting that the county, not the state, pays the lion's share when it comes to school construction.

Snook said the county is working on replacing its public safety communications system.

He also said a plan to improve Hagerstown Regional Airport is "on time and under budget."

Improvements at the airport have created more than 300 jobs since 2002 and have raised the airport's economic impact on the area, he said.

The county had a net gain of 900 new jobs in the past year and attracted more than $80 million in new investments, Snook said.

"The average job now is over $18 an hour," he said of the new jobs.

Asked where those jobs are, Snook said most are connected to the airport.

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