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Five issues that will drive the election

July 16, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Talk to public officials who have been through the electoral process and they'll tell you that candidates get questionnaires from every interest group that's out there. And each contains questions on multiple issues, too many for most people to keep straight.

With that in mind, on Wednesday I asked members of The Herald-Mail's Editorial Advisory Committee to pick the top five issues facing Washington County in this election year.

We spent more than an hour hashing things out. Here is what they came up with:

Growth, as in "smart growth" that keeps development from overburdening existing taxpayers with the cost of providing services to new residents and their children.

Having all taxpayers sharing the cost of growth was fine when growth came was at a slower pace. But now, members said, developers selling to those fleeing the metropolitan areas have driven up land and housing prices so high that many long-time residents could no longer afford to buy the homes they live in now.

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This is possible now, one member said, because buyers are willing to take on so much debt for very large homes. Caught in the squeeze are the people who can't make those big payments, either because they are retired, or just starting out. A few members worried that their grandchildren won't be able to afford to buy a home in this county.

And because making those big payments often requires working "down the road," the county could become a bedroom community, where workers sleep but do little in the way of public service or volunteering.

That will eventually change, another member said, because the companies will follow their workers "up the road." It might take 20 years, however, he said.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities: Decide that government's role is not to interfere in free-market decisions such as the development of one's land, or realize, as the late Commissioner Keller Nigh said, that if county government doesn't take the lead, the developers will.

Economic development. Stop paying companies or giving them incentives to locate here, one member said. This is a nice area, with many amenities, and if that isn't enough for the prospective industry, let it go elsewhere.

I would add a caveat to that - it depends on what you're paying for. If it's another $10-an-hour warehouse center, I wouldn't. But if it's a biotech company that would provide jobs at good wages and allow local kids with advanced degrees to move back home, I would.

Property tax assessments. The fact that tax bills just came - with some eye-popping numbers - drove this issue. As one member correctly noted, the increase in assessments could be rendered harmless, or nearly so, if the commissioners would drop the property tax rate to what is called the "constant yield" rate.

State law requires local governments to take out an ad each year to tell citizens how much they could reduce the tax rate and still get as much revenue as the year before. It also requires them to state whether they intend to raise or reduce the rate.

The local folks who set the tax rate shouldn't be let off the hook, members said.

Affordable housing. One member questioned why developers aren't building "starter homes" any more. Because now they can sell bigger, more expensive homes. To expect them to sell a less expensive - and less profitable - product without an incentive is wishful thinking.

In Montgomery County, Md., builders are allowed to build more homes if they build some that are more affordable. In the past I've suggested providing incentives for a large development of "starters" and prohibiting substantial additions. That way, when the family grew, it would move on, opening a starter for someone else.

Consolidation of government services. One member said that when governments are flush with tax money, it's tough to get them to give up anything. But when the economy begins to turn the other way, they may see the value in saving money by merging some services. Do it quietly, he said, in those areas such as recreation or inspections where which political body is in charge doesn't mean as much. That way, he said, and it might be accomplished more easily and gradually than anyone expects.

This is a short version of a session that took about 90 minutes. But when I re-read this list, I don't see any unimportant issues and I can't think of any major concerns that were left out. Thanks to all the members for their time and input.

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