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A million here and a million there ..

April 22, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Last month, when bids for the widening of Maugans Avenue came in more than $3 million over estimates, Washington County Commissioner William Wivell protested, saying that he was uncomfortable approving a bid more than double the projected cost.

"There's something here that just doesn't smell right," Wivell said.

But no such protest was reported in January, when the commissioners heard County Finance Director Debra Murray say that county excise tax receipts would come in $11 million under projections.

Herald-Mail reporter Tara Reilly reported no discussion of the shortfall during the Jan. 30 meeting, nor was it covered in the weekly meeting summary done by Norman Bassett, the county's communications director.

Nor is there any mention of an outcry the county's official minutes. And no story in The Herald-Mail's archives chronicles any follow-up discussions in which the commissioners raised questions about the shortfall.

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Why, I wondered, would a $3 million glitch (for lack of a better word) cause the commissioners so much heartburn, while an $11 million shortfall in the tax on new construction is announced with seemingly little reaction.

One possible answer: The commissioners had already heard the bad news back on Sept. 25, when Murray sent them an e-mail memo with a table attached, showing that even then, the tax would yield millions less than projected.

In an April 4 interview, Murray said that the downturn in the housing market and the fact that the county's excise tax, as written, currently exempts homes of 1,500 square feet or less from much of the tax, were contributing causes to the shortfall.

As a result, Murray said, funds had to be shifted from other areas, because the county had already opened bids and awarded contracts. The county did not have the option of putting off those capital projects until more money arrived, she said.

In answer to my question, Murray said that she had not been involved in drafting the excise tax legislation.

The excise tax, first proposed by county government in 2003, had been revised several times. In some cases those revisions passed just before the end of the Maryland General Assembly's annual session.

Though the commissioners knew in September the excise tax wasn't going to yield what the county needs for new schools and other projects, they didn't discuss another revision with the county's legislative delegation until January.

And so I e-mailed the commissioners these questions:

If it were clear that there would be a shortfall in September, why did it take until Jan. 25 to discuss proposed excise-tax revisions with the delegation?

Why wasn't the county finance director involved in drafting the last revision of the excise tax? If the commissioners requested a bill dealing with recycling, they certainly would consult the county's recycling coordinator. Why was Murray out of the loop on a matter concerning raising revenue?

Two commissioners - Wivell and Kristin Aleshire - responded.

Aleshire said that the new county board did not take office until Dec. 6, but did begin talking about the excise tax prior to the Jan. 25 meeting with the county's delegation.

"We did not send our request for legislation before that date because we needed some discussion of what we would be requesting to change," he wrote.

Aleshire said that to his knowledge, Murray was involved in initial discussions in drafting that tax and on how it would apply to the county budget.

"However, in actual drafting of language as it came through city/county/state direction, it was obviously handed off to the political bodies to work out and negotiate the details through compromise, such as the 1,500-square-foot rule," Aleshire wrote.

Wivell said that although he was not going to "attempt to remember exact dates, I know that the shortfall has been the cause of several discussions, and yes, cause for alarm."

Wivell said that his proposal was that with housing starts and the funding mechanism falling short, the school system should consider delaying construction of one of the three schools scheduled to be built in the near future. He proposed delaying Pangborn Elementary, saying that "after considering existing portables, the new school adds only 30-40 students."

Are the commissioners responsible for the slowdown in housing starts? Probably not, although having been burned once, the county board should do whatever is needed to get a better handle on construction activity.

As for developers taking advantage of the cheaper rate paid for homes under 1,500 square feet, the late John Colson, a Herald-Mail columnist, predicted that two years ago.

It's vital to get this stuff right. Without adequate revenue from development, county taxpayers will pay a much greater share of school construction.

And if you look at the history of the excise tax and its various revisions, as I did prior to writing this column, the process used by previous county boards covered a number of approaches, with no one claiming that "the flavor of the month" was something that had worked well elsewhere.

Past county boards seem to have approached the excise tax like blindfolded party guests, swinging a broomstick at a piata in hopes that the sought-after treats would come tumbling down.

This board must do better, by involving its own staff and perhaps assigning one or more county employees to seek out what has worked in other areas, so Washington County can get the revenue it needs without stumbling through another several years of flawed policies.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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