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Barr: County weathering economic storm

February 04, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- Conservative budgetary measures over the past few years have allowed Washington County's government to remain stable in the face of difficult economic times, Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said Tuesday in his State of the County address.

For the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the county cut back on borrowing and budgeted only a 0.68 percent increase over the previous year for internal service agencies, Barr said. The county also planned ahead for reductions in state funding, he said.

Still, economic worries were the prominent topic during a question-and-answer session with the commissioners after the speech.

Washington County is better positioned than some others to absorb costs that might be passed on by the state, county Administrator Gregory B. Murray said in response to one question. Among the costs the state has discussed passing down are the cost of operating local assessment offices and a portion of teachers' pensions, Commissioner William J. Wivell said. The county is keeping an eye on these potential costs and whether they are one-time only or permanent, Wivell said.

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The commissioners asked guests who gathered at Fountain Head Country Club for the address to write letters and e-mails to state and federal officials who will decide how to distribute economic stimulus funds to keep the area's projects fresh in their minds.

"There's a wish list out there, and the best we can do is try to get those projects out in front of other folks, but we need the help of everybody in this room as well," Wivell said.

The county has submitted a list of more than $400 million worth of projects in the county and its municipalities to be considered for stimulus funding, categorized based on the likely criteria for distributing the funds. Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said state officials have told him Washington County is one of the only counties in the state to submit such a comprehensive list.

However, Aleshire said, local officials might need to shift their thinking to emphasize state and federal projects that are important locally instead of county and municipal projects because state and federal projects are likely to receive more of the money.

A state task force recently created to look into gaming revenue is not necessarily a threat to the county's control of its tip jar funds, Commissioner James F. Kercheval said. The state is using Washington County as a model for how other jurisdictions should handle gaming revenue, Kercheval said. James B. Hovis, the county's gaming office director, is working with the task force, Murray said.

The commissioners also responded to a question about whether the county would reduce property tax rates in light of falling home values. Aleshire said the commissioners are keeping in mind the millions of dollars a rate cut would take away from infrastructure projects.

Kercheval said the commissioners understand the need for relief, but don't want to make drastic changes that could hurt the long-term health of the county.

"We certainly feel the concerns of the residents," Kercheval said. "At the same time, you don't want to forgo some of the long-term quality of life and infrastructure and things in the county that are going to bring money back again in the long haul."

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