Hotel-motel tax pool receives some welcome accountability

April 02, 2012

In one of the many attempts through the years to build a new Minor League Baseball stadium, state lawmakers tinkered with the county’s hotel-motel tax formula in such a way that the county could use this new revenue stream for stadium construction.

The stadium plans, like all the others, fizzled, but the money kept trickling in — it’s been used for any number of sundry expenses, from funding economic development projects to helping small towns put on holiday shows.

Now, the county is properly bringing little long-overdue structure to the pool of funds, running financial requests through a new Office of Community Grant Management.

While not all the tea in China, the fund does distribute some meaningful cash, including an $810,000 incentive to the T. Rowe Price data center on Downsville Pike, to be paid over six years.

Other funds have been passed out hither and yon, with money going to such causes as The Salvation Army, the Maryland Symphony Orchestra’s Salute to Independence at Antietam National Battlefield and to sponsor a balloon in a fundraiser for Barbara Ingram School for the Arts Foundation.

Understandably, the county in the past has taken some heat for distributing money under no discernible criteria. That’s why we welcome the county’s new transparency and accountability, which will require groups seeking money to fill out a fairly basic application.

A group seeking funding must detail justification for the project, expected attendance and more.

The more intriguing part is the follow-up report that is to be submitted in the wake of a funded project and requires grant recipients to list expenses, report attendance and describe the project’s impact on the community along with an estimate of resulting hotel and motel stays.

Grants of more than $25,000 must be approved by the commissioners, while sums under that amount will be adjudicated by County Administrator Greg Murray.

We understand that the commissioners might have better things to do than debate the worthiness of requests less than $25,000, money that for better or worse has become known in government budgets as pocket change. For example, much valuable time was used to debate Little League funding requests, a debate that probably became more political than it deserved to be.

Most of these small sums are given to worthy community causes that few would dispute. Still, we would hope that the county develop a reporting site for appropriations less than $25,000 in the interest of full transparency.

But large sum or small, the commissioners are on the right track. Had a previous Washington County Board of Commissioners established an application and reporting system a dozen years ago, the community might have something a little more tangible to show for the hotel-motel money that has come in through the years.

Perhaps now, with more structure, the fund can once again become what it was supposed to be — a way to pay, through travel taxes, for a project that will have a meaningful and long-lasting impact on the community. And if not, at least the reason why will be documented for all to see.

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