Local officials meet privately to mull gas-tax hike

January 06, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

Several local business and government officials met privately at Fountain Head Country Club on Wednesday to discuss what might happen if the state raises its gasoline tax.

Hagerstown Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said Thursday that the meeting was meant to get local people and groups on the same page, because a gas-tax increase is a strong possibility, and additional revenue will go elsewhere if Washington County doesn’t seek its share.

Lawmakers in Annapolis considered raising the state’s per-gallon gas tax of 23.5 cents last year, and the idea is widely expected to resurface this year.

A state panel has recommended increasing the state’s gas tax 5 cents a year, for three years, providing needed money for transportation-related projects.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he asked attendees at the meeting to send him a list of possible local projects the gas-tax increase could fund.

The subject line of D. Bruce Poole’s Dec. 27 email invitation to the meeting was “Antietam bridge/BOE move/revenue sources.”

The first item on the subject line refers to a bridge that would cross Antietam Creek, part of a road-extension project to help link Hagerstown Community College, Meritus Medical Center and the surrounding area.

The second item refers to the Washington County Board of Education possibly moving its headquarters from Commonwealth Avenue to downtown Hagerstown.

Poole, an attorney and former state delegate, declined on Thursday to talk more about the meeting, other than to call it a discussion of “general public policy.”

He said he pledged confidentiality to the people who attended.

Donoghue called the meeting an informal, “last-minute” gathering to get a sense of what could happen if the gas tax goes up.

Representatives from the Greater Hagerstown Committee, the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, HCC and some local government bodies attended, although Donoghue couldn’t recall everyone who was there.

“I asked Bruce Poole to come along,” he said.

Donoghue said he told the group that before he supports a gas-tax increase, he wants to hear from local constituency groups — whether they’d seek the additional revenue and for which projects.

If any group opposes the increase, it won’t get any of the new money for its projects, he said.

Metzner spoke the most openly about the meeting, confirming that the Antietam Creek bridge and a possible board of education headquarters relocation were discussed. He said he hasn’t heard yet where the school offices might go, although he thinks people outside of government are working on ideas.

Although the meeting was private, no one was sworn to secrecy, Metzner said, and the topics that came up are likely to be discussed more openly in the future.

“If there is not public support for these projects, these projects aren’t going to happen. The only way you get public support is by going to the public,” he said.

A strong local voice in favor of receiving part of the gas-tax increase could deflate the argument of legislators who claim their constituents oppose the increase, Metzner said.

Gregory I. Snook, the president and chief executive officer of the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, attended the meeting, which he called an opportunity for “strategizing” about the upcoming General Assembly session.

“There was a whole list of possible projects,” he said. “Some of (them) are attainable. Some are not.”

Wayne D. Ridenour, the county school board president, also was at the meeting, but declined to comment on it.

“Not right now,” he said Thursday, noting that he hadn’t had time to talk to other school board members about the discussion.

The email list shows that others who were invited included Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II; Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President Brien J. Poffenberger; and businessman Donald M. Bowman.

Bowman was on the state panel that recommended the 15-cent gas-tax hike over three years, but he disagreed with the recommendation.

No meeting violation

Washington County Commissioner John F. Barr also was invited, but said he didn’t attend because he was at a Maryland Association of Counties winter conference in Cambridge, Md.

Commissioners Terry L. Baker and William B. McKinley also were on the email invitation list.

If three county commissioners had attended, it could have been an unadvertised government body meeting, a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, but Metzner confirmed that that wasn’t the case.

Donoghue was the only state lawmaker on the email invitation list. The seven other Washington County delegation members — six Republicans and one Democrat — have said they do not support raising the state’s gas tax this year.

In his email, Poole wrote: “Recently, I’ve been in Annapolis and had discussions with some decision-makers about how possibly to fund the bridge and also the potential move of the BOE HQ. In that the Legislature convenes very soon, I’d like to get together to talk about these issues and determine whether we wish to move forward.

“I apologize in advance for not inviting a number of influential people to this meeting. I know that they will need to be involved if we move forward and I will explain my thinking further when we meet.

“The meeting will be private and held at the Multi-Purpose Room of Fountain Head Country Club, Wednesday, Jan. 4, from 5:30 to no later than 7 p.m. (drinks only). Please respond as to whether you will be attending. Thanks. Bruce.”

Donoghue said he looks forward to another similar meeting with the group and promised to invite a Herald-Mail reporter to cover it.

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