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County approves budget for fiscal 2008

June 12, 2007|By JOSHUA BOWMAN and ANDREW SCHOTZ

The Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday worked out the final details of a $309 million budget for fiscal year 2008, a spending increase of 2 percent more than the current year.

The commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the budget, with Commissioners Kristin B. Aleshire and William J. Wivell voting against it.

"There was little room for compromise," said Aleshire, who argued that the final budget veered only slightly from staff's original recommendations.

The budget includes $84.2 million for the Washington County Board of Education, $7.9 million for Hagerstown Community College, $20 million for the Washington County Sheriff's Department and $7.3 million for Washington County Fire and Rescue. The budget provides funding for nine new emergency services positions and five new sheriff's department positions.

"It was a lot of effort, but I'm very pleased with this budget," President John F. Barr said. "We were able to fund a lot of needs that have been ignored for too long. Things are good in county government."

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General-fund spending will be $196 million, 10 percent higher than this year.

The commissioners previously agreed to keep the property tax rate at 94.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. However, tax bills still would go up because of rising property assessments.

Under the new budget, the cost of water will go up about 3.5 percent for the average residential customer. The increase in sewer costs will be 3.4 percent for the average residential customer.

Wivell called the budget a "huge disappointment," and said spending was excessive.

"I've always been very conservative, but we basically got a surplus by borrowing and then spent that surplus," Wivell said.

The commissioners spent Tuesday wrapping up the budget's loose ends, including how to divide $8.1 million of cash reserves in the county's Pay Go fund.

Wivell and Aleshire wanted most of the money to go toward repaying some of the county's $16.9 million in borrowed bonds, while Commissioners James F. Kercheval, Terry Baker and Barr said it should go toward transportation and road improvement projects. Barr said the county's road improvement projects should be tackled this year while the interest rate on the bonds is low.

"If we don't go after some of these projects now, as a businessman, I ought to be strung up," said Barr, who argued that several of the county's improvement projects have gone unfunded for decades.

Aleshire said he agreed that the projects need to be completed, but that the county is ignoring its debt in the process.

"We can't expect to borrow ourselves out of decades of financial negligence," Aleshire said.

The commissioners decided to spend $1 million of the fund paying back bonds. They allocated $2 million of the fund for road projects, $1.75 million for projected cost increases on major transportation projects, $1.65 million for school maintenance projects, $400,000 for a cafeteria for Fountain Rock Elementary School and $300,000 for three emergency services vehicles. The commissioners also put $1 million of the fund in a restrictive reserve account for future projects.

Aleshire lobbied to use $50,000 toward televising the commissioners' meetings, but was unsuccessful.

The commissioners also debated on Tuesday over money for three nonprofit groups - Discovery Station, Holly Place and The Maryland Theatre - whose funding was undecided.

They were sharply divided on whether to give money to Discovery Station, a science and technology museum that requested $25,000 for the next fiscal year.

Kercheval suggesting giving the group $20,000 from a commissioners' contingency fund.

Wivell and Aleshire objected. Aleshire called it "way out there in the spectrum" of necessary spending.

The commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of allocating $20,000, with Barr and Baker siding with Kercheval.

Representatives from Holly Place, a senior citizens' group home, had requested $25,500, but the county initially pledged $24,070. The commissioners agreed Tuesday to give $1,430 more, meeting the full funding request.

A request for $25,000 from The Maryland Theatre was not approved.

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