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County officials wary of possible Md. gas tax hike

February 09, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Washington County Commissioner Terry Baker, left, speaks as fellow commissioners John F. Barr and Ruth Anne Callaham listen Tuesday during the State of the County presentation at Fountain Head Country Club.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — The Washington County Commissioners aired their concerns about a potential gasoline tax increase Tuesday morning during a question-and-answer session following a State of the County presentation at Fountain Head Country Club near Hagerstown.

Commissioner John F. Barr, who represents the county in the Maryland Association of Counties, said he had heard that failing to support a state gas tax increase might reduce the county's chances of sharing in the resulting revenue.

"Frankly, at this point, if we challenge it, we'll receive nothing," Barr said. "If we embrace it, my understanding is we'll get a portion of it."

"I think they call that highway robbery," Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said.

Barr said that in MACO meetings, he used stronger words, such as "blackmail."

Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, introduced a transportation funding bill Monday in the Maryland General Assembly that includes a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax.

Barr and Commissioners President Terry Baker said they thought a gas tax increase was a bad idea and would motivate some drivers to buy their gas out-of-state.

"As a local business owner — and we purchase a fair amount of gas — I made a call last week to our local delegation, and I said, 'Well, I've got it all figured out. We'll just stop in Falling Waters (W.Va.) and make the second stop in Greencastle (Pa.) to buy our gas,'" Barr said.

Barr is president and owner of Ellsworth Electric.

Baker agreed that a higher gas tax would drive people to neighboring states, where they would also begin doing more of their shopping and dining.

"Overall, that's going to bring less revenue back to the community," he said.

Maryland's gas tax is currently 23.5 cents per gallon, slightly above the average state gas tax of 22.44 cents nationwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration website, www.eia.doe.gov.

Pennsylvania's gas tax is 31.2 cents, and West Virginia's is 32.2 cents, according to the site.

Commissioners Ruth Anne Callaham and Jeff Cline each said the county should focus on lobbying the state to restore road funding to the county. That road funding, which comes in part from gas tax revenue, has been cut more than 90 percent in recent years.

"Sometimes you have to face the inevitable, and if the gas tax must be raised — I don't think we've had an increase in many, many years — sometimes you just have to accept that," Callaham said. "And then you have to call the state to task, and say, 'OK, now we've taken the pill. We want something for it.'"

Cline said that when the state doesn't pass gasoline tax revenue on to the county, drivers are paying twice — once in gas tax at the pump, and again when the county must find other funding for road improvements.

"We need to tell Annapolis — we need to tell them, — That's our share of the money; we want it back,'" Cline said.

During the question-and-answer session, commissioners also discussed the following issues:

• Commissioner Bill McKinley also said he was concerned about new limits on septic tank development that the state is proposing as part of a watershed protection plan.

"I see that affecting our builders in a very, very negative way," McKinley said.

Callaham said Washington County is capable of managing its wastewater nutrient loads without additional state regulation and should lobby for waivers from the septic limitations if they are enacted.

"If I seem a little edgy about that, it's because the state is always giving us mandates telling us how to run our county, and as you've seen, we do a really fine job," she said.

• Callaham said she was concerned by discussion on the state level about shifting 90 percent of the cost of property assessments to the counties. She said she feared the counties would get stuck with the cost without any control over the process.

"It's as if I were to pay your utility bill and I can't make you caulk your windows," she said.

• Asked about the status of hiring a new director for Hagerstown Regional Airport to replace Carolyn Motz, who is retiring, McKinley said the county would have an announcement on that subject "very soon."

• And asked why the county couldn't give preference to Washington County companies when awarding contracts, Callaham said the commissioners had asked the same question of the county purchasing department.

"The answer was lengthy and convoluted," she said. "The bottom line was if we offer some kind of ordinance or purchasing preference for our businesses in our county, well guess what? Pennsylvania and West Virginia will do the same thing, and so any of you that may be doing business in those two states could consider the door closed to you. And we wouldn't do that to you."

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Staff Writer Kate S. Alexander contributed to this story.Editor's note: This story was edited Feb. 11, 2011, to correct Del. Rob Garagiola's party affiliation in the sixth paragraph.

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