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Can Del. Weldon bridge tax impasse?

April 29, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Three years after Washington County nearly lost 180 new jobs because of a dispute with Hagerstown over tax policy, one elected official is finally ready to take the lead in trying to solve the dispute.

It's Del. Richard Weldon, R-Frederick/Washington, which is a little bit short of amazing because Weldon's district includes only a tiny sliver of this county - and none of the city.

So, given that there are plenty of dragons that need slaying in Frederick County, why is he worrying about this one?

Weldon, who has been a city administrator in Brunswick, chief operating officer of Frederick County and a Frederick County Commissioner, said he felt he should use his experience to try to solve this problem.

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Weldon said it is one he is familiar with from Frederick County. As Brunswick's administrator, he was faced with the need to hire a part-time land-use planner after the county began cutting the time its planners spent on municipal issues.

Eventually, Weldon said, the town needed a full-time planner and yet when the county did its budget, there was no recognition of the fact that Brunswick taxpayers had taken on the cost of a service once performed by the county.

"There was no consideration of that in the tax set-off," he said.

Weldon said he got the other municipalities together to look at the problem, since more of them were having to hire their own planners.

Together they documented the work being done, versus the work the county planners once did - and the costs for taking on these new duties.

It took a year and a half, but Weldon said they were able to get the commissioners to agree to make it part of their annual negotiations with municipalities over the tax set-off.

Weldon said the municipalities were able to win their point because they made the case in a business-like way, as opposed to trying to have a political argument about it.

"The key is to be able to demonstrate the inequity. I don't think it's a claim that we can make without documentation or should make as a political argument," he said.

Weldon said he would like to meet with Washington County municipal officials before the next General Assembly session, but said he wasn't sure when that would happen.

"In February, I suggested to Bob (Mayor Robert Bruchey) that I would come to one of the meetings of the Maryland Municipal League. I think I can make a presentation that sets out a structured format for this," Weldon said.

Will the county commissioners accept it?

"I know all of them and they're all reasonable people," he said, adding that he had spoken about the issue to Dels. John Donoghue, Chris Shank, Bob McKee and LeRoy Myers Jr.

Asked if he had come to any conclusions about which services Hagerstown should be compensated for, Weldon said he was hesitant to talk about that at this time.

But when pressed, Weldon said that "there are a couple of areas where Hagerstown has completely assumed the duties formerly performed by the county," he said.

Bruchey said Friday he welcomes Weldon's help and said the two had talked "at length" during the session about the issue.

Bruchey said that Frederick City received a $4 million rebate from its home county, while Hagerstown only received $1.2 million.

"I know their budget isn't four times as large as this county's," Bruchey said, adding that Frederick City doesn't have paid firefighters, either.

Bruchey said he was surprised when Donoghue filed a bill that would have given the city most of the tax revenue collected inside its boundaries.

The mayor said he had proposed that the city get 21 percent of the transfer and recordation taxes within its borders. Donoghue's bill offered it all.

If all the revenue sharing was calculated as he felt it should be, Bruchey said the city government could get $7 million in new revenue.

But, Bruchey said, "I'm all about compromise. If we got $3.5 million, I would be tickled pink," he said.

The mayor said the city currently gets 28 percent of the excise tax on new construction that is collected in the city, but none of the motel tax, although many of the motels are located inside the city limits.

When there is a crime-related problem at those locations, the Hagerstown Police Department responds, as does the Hagerstown Fire Department if there is a fire.

Given that the commissioners are still dealing with an $11 million excise tax shortfall and a bid to widen Maugans Avenue that came in $2.8 million over estimates, funds to share might be tight this year. But it will be tougher to say no to any additional money if Weldon and local mayors can prove that the municipalities are entitled to more than they are getting now.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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