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Handgun-permitting proposal shot down by state lawmakers

December 13, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Del. LeRoy Myers(R), center, District 1C sits at the table with fellow members of the Washington County delegation and commissioners during a meeting Monday in Hagerstown.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — State legislators on Monday shot down an idea to seek handgun-permitting powers for the Washington County sheriff, saying it could open the door for more liberal counties to tighten their own gun control measures.

“From a political strategy, they might say, ‘OK, go ahead, we’ll let you do that in Washington County ... but then we’re going to start banning handguns in Montgomery County,’ and that’s not a road that I want to go down,” said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

The discussion came up during a meeting Monday morning between the Washington County Commissioners and the county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. At the meeting, the commissioners asked the delegation to pursue three legislative items.

In addition to the handgun-permitting legislation, the commissioners asked the delegation to introduce legislation ending mandatory general fund subsidies to the county’s utility funds and requiring disclosures about stormwater management structures to property buyers.

The push for local issuance of handgun permits was suggested in Frederick County by Commissioner Blaine Young, who said the current permitting process, administered by Maryland State Police, made the permits too difficult to obtain. After hearing of Frederick County’s suggestion, the Washington County Commissioners agreed to follow suit.

Shank told the commissioners Monday that he strongly supports right-to-carry legislation and has vigorously defended second-amendment issues, but he thought an attempt to move power from the state to the county was not a good solution.

Shank said that when local jurisdictions like Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have sought gun-control measures such as banning gun shows, conservative legislators have been able to kill those bills by arguing the concept of pre-emption, saying it is the state, not counties, that have the authority to regulate handguns.

After using that argument for years, proposing to authorize handgun permitting on the county level would look inconsistent, Shank said.

Del.-elect Michael Hough, R-Frederick/Washington, said he had heard from a second-amendment group with the same concern.

However, Hough and Shank said they agreed the current permitting system in Maryland was “broken.”

Sewer subsidy

Delegation members said they agreed it was time to lift a state mandate that Washington County contribute $500,000 a year from its general fund to pay off sewer system debt and subsidize its water, sewer and pretreatment operations.

That requirement was put in place by the state in 2000, in House Bill 1417, to help control water and sewer rates as the county attempted to pay off massive water and sewer debt that had racked up before the county took over the sanitation district in 1996.

When the county took over the district, the outstanding debt was about $55 million, and it rose to a high of about $57 million as the result of a debt restructuring plan implemented as part of the takeover, County Budget Director Debra Murray said. By the end of June 2011, that debt is projected to be down to $25.3 million, she said.

Murray said enterprise funds like the water and sewer funds are meant to be supported by user fees and hookup fees, not by taxes. The funds are on track to be self-sufficient by fiscal year 2013, so the county is asking that the mandated general fund contribution be lifted, she said.

Delegation members said they agreed HB1417 had served its purpose, but they said several issues would need to be discussed. For one thing, upon passing that bill, the state freed up $500,000 in revenue for the county through changes in the funding allocations for the gaming and hotel tax funds, Shank said.

“So if we remove this mandate, which seems to be the reasonable thing to do, what are we going to do with this $500,000?” Shank asked. “Because that essentially will accrue back to the county.”

Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, suggested that the delegation also discuss whether, now that the county’s utilities are in better shape, measures need to be taken to prevent large rate increases by struggling municipal systems.

Stormwater disclosure

The county’s third legislative request was less controversial.

That request was for legislative authority to require notification to property purchasers at closing that the property they are buying may have a stormwater management structure on it and, if it does, certain duties or prohibitions may accompany it.

County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III, who suggested the idea, said its purpose was only to educate and inform property owners and would not add any obligations that don’t already exist. He said he wanted to remove the “element of surprise” that some property owners experience upon learning a structure on their property cannot be removed or that someone from the county will be visiting their property every three years for an inspection.

Members of the delegation asked questions about the need for the legislation, but did not argue against it.

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