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As commissioners show promise, biggest challenge lies ahead

February 19, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

If those we have elected to office over the past couple of decades have taught us anything, it is this: We could always do worse. And we frequently do.

When a functional group of office holders is seated, that's why it is usually better to try to influence their views rather than to advocate a "clean sweep" on a wish and a prayer that those who take their places will be an improvement.

It would be hard to find a constituency that doesn't have one beef or another with this current board of Washington County Commissioners. Zoning, land use, taxation, affordable housing, quarry expansion, school funding - all are issues where one could find fault. And all are obviously issues on which you will want to base your vote in this election year.

But those going into the election advocating change simply for the sake of change should think about two things: First, is the new person definitely going to be an upgrade? Second, what is the performance record of those who are in currently in office?

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This isn't meant to be an endorsement of the current commissioners, just a reminder that flaws and all, this board does tend to work.

For a quick lesson in the difference between competence and incompetence, consider the hospital issue. After a couple of years of fun-house craziness the City Council finally bailed and put the ball in the commissioners court.

The county has quickly and efficiently moved the project along, something which, in the end, had to be done. No, not every detail is nailed down as much as some of us might like. But the bottom line is that we need a new hospital, and we needed a group of professionals to end the foolishness.

The commissioners have been good to education, and the fact that they passed a land-use plan that made almost no one happy is probably testimony to its equity.

The have made some questionable decisions, but seldom outrageous decisions. I'm not a believer that the airport project will bring us a fleet of regional jets, but even here, commissioners can make the case that - since it is largely federally funded, and could conceivably pay off in a big way - it was the responsible course to take.

Plus, they are well-balanced. Commissioner John Munson does represent a fair number of people adverse to change. Jim Kercheval is perhaps the county's brightest elected star, independent, innovative and sensibly progressive. Dori Nipps and Bill Wivell are generally on opposing sides, but both do their homework and put thought into the job. Commission President Greg Snook, cast into what for him has to be the uncomfortable position of being the swing vote on a divided board, has handled the spotlight reasonably well.

Certainly better candidates may present themselves, and voters should make their choices for office independently, not as a block.

But as a group, they do function and, particularly now, there is something to be said for that. If they wish to continue on, however, there is one matter they will have to pay particular attention to this year, that being property taxation.

New assessments will see property taxes for the foreseeable future growing at 10 percent a year unless commissioners use their power to lower the cap.

Trying to make themselves look good at the commissioners' expense, state lawmakers are trying to force the county to lower taxes, and correspondingly the money it has to spend on items such as roads and classroom space.

This is a rather audacious stand for our lawmakers to take, considering the state budget has doubled in the past dozen years, and money this session is being thrown around like confetti. Since they can't control their own spending, I suppose they feel the need to control someone else's in a way that will cause them no personal pain.

A majority of commissioners are understandably steamed at the state interfering in a local issue that to be honest is none of their business. But it would be a mistake to let anger at the delegation cause them to stubbornly turn their backs on an issue that deserves attention.

The county has toyed with the idea of a $100 rebate this year, a one-time bone to quit the masses. But those fearful of runaway taxation are going to demand a more permanent and thoughtful solution. Jurisdictions with staggering taxation didn't get to be that way all at once; it happened a little at a time and because no one challenged these incremental raises.

That will not be the case in Washington County, and any commissioner wishing to remain a commissioner needs to understand. They cannot let the pride of not letting the delegation bully them around drive their policy.

It would not be too soon to put some thought into taxation and develop a long-range plan. In other words, what will it cost to run the county over the next 10 years in a manner that is frugal yet still provides the necessary services and capital improvements? How do we fairly meet the needs of the public, while not driving lower-income residents from their homes?

A lot of folks in Washington County didn't ask for the wave of housing demand that washed over the mountain and sent housing costs soaring. But it happened. The commissioners owe them some form of protection, which most plausibly would come in the form of a lowered phase-in cap.

At the same time, taxpayers cannot expect the county to ignore the demands of growth and unduly squeeze items such as education and transportation.

There is middle ground to be found here. If these commissioners are to fulfill some of the promise they have shown, it will be their job to find it.

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