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Lawmakers: Budget shortfall will hurt county

December 11, 2008|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- The state's budget prospects appear bleak, and local representatives warned Thursday that the projected shortfall will hurt Washington County.

Lawmakers warned that there likely will be less money coming to Washington County from the state, which has a projected budget shortfall of at least $1 billion.

Five members of Washington County's delegation to the General Assembly answered questions during a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce event Thursday.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said a proposal to pass the bulk of the cost of teacher pensions to county governments could gain some traction during the upcoming General Assembly legislative session. This proposal also would affect library and community college employee pensions.

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Shank said if Washington County assumes that responsibility from the state, it could mean an unfunded liability of about $6.5 million for the county.

"The county commissioners don't have $6.5 million laying around," he said. "The only way they'll be able to assume that liability is to raise local property taxes."

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, said pension reform is needed in Maryland to return the pension fund balance to previous levels. The fund recently lost $15 billion because of the stock market downturn, and there is now $29 billion available, he said.

Slots are expected to bring additional state revenue, but Serafini said significant funds are not expected until as late as 2012.

Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., an independent representing Washington and Frederick counties, said the recent economic downturn has led him to reconsider his priorities for the upcoming session.

"All of the things I had thought I would be working on this year, I am re-evaluating all of them," he said. "All of them would have had a cost implication. I'm not going to put a bill in that will add a burden."

Bills he worked on last year that would provide additional money for mental health programs and do more for people with developmental disabilities also could have to be postponed, he said. Pursuing bills that would require additional money is "irresponsible," he said.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, said the budget will be a top priority, and he will focus on making sure Washington County holds on to funding it has been promised for the Washington County Free Library expansion and the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

Shank said he would introduce bills related to child abuse penalties, protecting correctional officers and Internet safety for children.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington; Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington; and Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, did not attend Thursday's event.

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