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Washington Co. Commissioners won't contribute funds to lobbying group

January 10, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN — For the first time since its creation eight years ago, the Washington County Community Lobbying Coalition will not receive a funding contribution from the county government, the Washington County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday.

In previous years, the county has contributed $10,000 each year toward lobbying for local issues in Annapolis.

But this year, a motion to provide the customary contribution failed in a 3-2 vote after Commissioners President Terry Baker criticized the lobbyist as unnecessary and the coalition’s plan to spend $15,000 on a reception for legislators “appalling.”

“I cannot sit here and support that these kinds of monies are going to be spent on the taxpayer’s dime,” Baker said. “Fifteen-thousand dollars. We have people in this community that don’t make that much money.”

Commissioners Jeffrey A. Cline and William B. McKinley joined Baker in voting against the contribution.

The county is one of seven funding partners that have traditionally contributed to the lobbying coalition at various levels.

The county and the school system have traditionally contributed $10,000 each; the city of Hagerstown and the library, $5,000 each; the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, or CHIEF, $3,000 each; and the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, $2,000, for a total of $38,000. The Greater Hagerstown Committee provides non-financial support.

Chamber President Brien J. Poffenberger told the commissioners Tuesday that the county and city were the only two partners that had not yet committed funding for 2012.

In contrast, the Hagerstown City Council decided later Tuesday afternoon in favor of spending $5,000 for the lobbyist.

Although council member Ashley Haywood raised some concerns about the list of items in the lobbying agenda, Councilman Martin Brubaker spoke of the appeal of bringing the city, the Washington County Board of Education and county government together to speak as one voice on local issues.

“I think that alone makes it worthwhile,” Brubaker said in an afternoon council work session.

The coalition’s agenda this year includes requests related to extending Professional Court over Antietam Creek, marketing Civil War events, and extending eligibility for job-creation tax credits, Poffenberger said.

The lobbyist will also be asked to be on the lookout for action on several “watch list” items such as threats to gaming revenue and shifting of state costs to local government, he said.

According to a lobbying coalition budget provided to the commissioners, the coalition plans to pay:
• $24,000 to the lobbying firm Rifkin, Levitan, Livings  & Silver.
• $15,000 for a reception.
• $2,000 for a lunch.
• $600 for a lobbying registration fee.
• $500 for committee dinners, for a total of $42,100 in expenses.

The difference between contributions and expenses will come from the coalition’s fund balance, which as of July 31 totaled $59,313, according to the budget.

‘Way it works in Annapolis’
Poffenberger said after the meeting that there was no reason why the coalition would not go forward with its original plan, using the fund balance to make up for the lack of a county contribution.

In past years, the coalition has hosted a dinner as part of its Day in Annapolis, but at the suggestion of Sen. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, coalition leaders decided this year to instead host a reception for legislators from throughout the state, with free food and drinks, and exhibits showcasing Washington County businesses and educational institutions, Poffenberger said.

“What this is not is streamers and party hats,” Poffenberger said. “What this is, is displays that project who we are, and how we want them to think of us.

“In one 45-minute visit, people walk away thinking, ‘Wow, that’s not what I thought Washington County was,’” he said.

“I certainly don’t want anyone drinking alcohol, wheeling and dealing, giving my county away just to get a project,” Baker said.

Barr, who made the motion to provide the $10,000 contribution, said he had been to similar receptions.

“Whether we like it or not, this is the way it works in Annapolis,” Barr said. “... I dare say there’s probably more decisions made in the evenings at these kinds of functions than there is during the day when all the rhetoric and filibustering goes on on the floor.”

Callaham said she supported the contribution because she agrees with legislators who have said recent state policies and proposals represent a “war on rural Maryland.”

“The time is now; all hands on deck,” she said.

Already paying lobbyist
Baker argued that the county already has people watching out for action on many of the coalition’s “watch list” items.

In particular, the county has already agreed to contribute $5,000 toward a Rural Counties Coalition lobbyist focused on protecting the interests of rural jurisdictions in PlanMaryland, a statewide comprehensive plan.

Baker has taken a similar stance in previous years. Last year, the commissioners voted 4-1 to contribute to the coalition, with Baker opposed.

Cline said his concerns this year were related to a potential gas tax increase.

Although the gas tax is not mentioned in the coalition’s agenda, Cline pointed out that representatives of many of the coalition groups were invited to a private meeting last week to discuss local projects that might benefit from a gas tax increase.

“I’m not sure any of these funding partners will not go ahead and say, ‘We support a gas tax’ and just change (the lobbying agenda) to try to get some of these projects funded,” Cline said.

How they voted:
Terry Baker: No
John F. Barr: Yes
Ruth Anne Callaham: Yes
Jeffrey A. Cline: No
William B. McKinley: No

Staff Writer Dave McMillion contributed to this story.

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