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Failed bills show need for better partnerships

April 26, 2007

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Tuesday signed four local bills into law. Except for the excise tax bill, however, the most significant local measures introduced in 2007 didn't get close to the governor's desk.

The excise tax bill is crucial because it is - or should be - one large source of funds for the construction of new schools.

Unfortunately, due to the housing slump and the way the tax is levied, county officials announced in January it would deliver $11 million less than expected in the current fiscal year.

The bill suspends the excise tax cap for a year and a task force will recommend that it be collected based on the square footage of the structure under construction.

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It's vital to get as much money as possible from this tax, because as Commissioners President John Barr said in February, the county faces a host of fiscal challenges.

Three planned elementary schools - Maugansville, Pangborn and one to be named near the Westfields development- will cost $75 million, Barr said.

Then there is the county's new emergency radio system, which will cost nearly $20 million.

Major road projects on the table include the widening of Maugans Avenue and the reconstruction of the U.S. 40/Edgewood Drive intersection. Any tax money collected now is cash that won't have to be borrowed later.

Those bills that weren't successful in the 2007 General Assembly session include Del. Chris Shank's proposal to allow a referendum on whether the School Board should be elected by districts.

A form of the bill was also introduced in 2006, after Shank and Del. Richard Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, were approached about the idea by the Citizens Advisory Council for the Boonsboro school system.

Shank said CAC members said they felt that the Boonsboro area's interests were not adequately represented.

Whether or not that is true is debatable, but this disagreement has taken up time and energy that would have been better spent working together to get more school construction money.

Our suggestion: Due to a job promotion, W. Edward Forrest has resigned from the School Board because his new duties will require more travel, making it difficult to attend School Board meetings.

When the committee considering Forrest's replacement looks at the list of applicants, assuming that the candidates' qualifications are equal, why not give extra consideration to someone from the southern part of the county?

The other bill that went nowhere was Del. John Donog-hue's proposal to get the Washington County government to share more of the revenue it collects inside the City of Hagerstown with the city government.

In February, Commissioner James Kercheval told a joint session of the city council and the county commissioners that no additional revenue sharing was warranted.

But without some new agreement, the city is unlikely to alter its policy of requiring pre-annexation agreements for some county projects.

That means that the county's Economic Development Department must tell every commercial or industrial prospect that, depending on the location of their proposed site, they might or might not have to pay city property taxes someday.

That's not the sort of uncertainty that businesses want to deal with. Our suggestion: A pact between the two governments to share new revenues in those areas where pre-annexation agreements would otherwise apply.

Citizens also have a role to play in these matters, because when government officials are fighting with each other, the chances are good they're not paying as much attention as they should to the people's business.

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