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Under charter, government would be larger and costlier

February 08, 2008|By CHRISTOPHER B. SHANK

To the editor:

I wrote earlier that the charter backers have failed to make a compelling argument for adopting charter home rule government. I would now like to offer some specific reasons why home rule in general, and this charter in particular, could increase the costs of government and reduce personal liberties for the citizens of Washington County. Without some checks built into the process, all governments inevitably expand. It is just that simple. Government expands to the detriment of personal freedom and costs more of your money to operate.

It wasn't that long ago that Washington County was swimming in red ink, the consequence of the financial mismanagement at the former water and sewer authority. It took record rate increases to get the $53 million debt under control. Under this charter, the prospect of similar runaway debt could easily occur again. Proponents will say that indebtedness is capped at 5 percent of the county's tax base. What they don't tell you is that this means the county is empowered to borrow an astounding sum of nearly $600 million. Furthermore, the charter board rejected commonsense proposals like five other charter counties have that cap the annual rate of government spending.

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Currently, the average person living in a charter county in Maryland pays 50 percent more in taxes than the average person in Washington County. That's an average per capita difference of $618 more in taxes each year that people in charter counties pay than we currently pay now in Washington County. While proponents suggest that there will be no increased taxing authority under charter government, the Maryland Annotated Code gives all charter counties the ability to enact special taxing districts without gaining approval from the legislature. With the soaring property tax assessments our county has experienced lately, the last thing we need in Washington County right now is a new property tax!

If the growth in government, higher debt, and new taxes are not enough, consider one of the other little known facts about charter government. The Maryland constitution gives all charter counties the right to impose ordinances that are "deemed expedient in maintaining the peace, good government, health and welfare of the county." Basically these police and general welfare powers give charter governments broad authority to do as they please as long as it is not a subject already addressed by the state government.

Baltimore County has the ability to use eminent domain to condemn private homes and businesses and has given the land to politically well-connected developers. Howard County's Council has even prohibited little leagues and soccer teams from selling banner ads at their recreational fields! The Montgomery County Council has banned trans fats from restaurants, regulated financial services, and most recently passed legislation to provide the right for a trans-gendered individual to use a men's or a women's restroom. While I doubt that such liberal initiatives would fly in conservative Washington County, why take the chance? No one can guarantee that such ideas won't be proposed and debated 10 years from now if the county is overrun by rampant growth.

Many have said they want government that is closer to the people. I agree, but if that government has the ability to grow its own power at the expense of its citizens, then I say we are no better off. Ultimately, the government belongs to the people, and it is the people who the government should serve. We should not create a new form of government to make it easier for a county council to amass more power at the expense of the people. If the charter or any government is structured to limit the rights of the people and raise taxes, then it should be rejected.

Christopher B. Shank is a state delegate, District 2B.

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