County Comment: State of the County Sound, Despite Fiscal Challenges
State of the County Sound, Despite Fiscal Challenges
by Norman Bassett, Public Information Officer
Washington County, Maryland
On February 3rd, 2009, Washington County Board of County Commissioners' President John Barr presented the annual State of the County Address.
Barr told the crowd of approximately 150 that Washington County Government has seen great progress in the last year, and has accomplished much in 2008 in terms of infrastructure improvements, managing financial challenges, and ensuring that County services and finances remain stable in the face of a struggling economy.
Barr tracked progress in General Government., Environmental Management, Public Works, Transportation, Public Safety, and Education.
Highlights included completion of the Mt. Aetna and Rt. 40 Intersection Improvements and the Maugans Avenue project, establishment of a Senior Center, three new community recreation centers opened in "supersized" elementary school gyms, resumption of commercial service at Hagerstown Regional Airport by Allegiant Air flights to Florida and Cape Air daily passenger service to and from BWI. Evaluation and structure completion for the consolidated dispatch center for Washington County, headed public safety highlights while the new 911 center on Elliott Parkway will be ready for operation in the 2010 fiscal year. Public Education continued to improve with the Barr Construction Institute becoming a reality, four high schools recognized as U.S. News and World Report "Best High Schools" and Boonsboro High named as one of the Nation's top 1300 High Schools by Newsweek magazine. Progress continued on the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts. Dropout rates declined while graduation rates increased, while testing scores increased at all levels. Hagerstown Community College enrollment is up nearly 12 percent, and HCC is offering courses at Fort Ritchie. HCC is one of the first businesses to be established in the redevelopment of the property under the management of Corporate Office Properties Trust. HCC construction offers expanded opportunities in higher education. Opening the Boonsboro branch of the Washington County Free Library helped provide enhanced services to south County residents. And renovations to the Main Branch are moving along with County, City, and State funding in place for design and construction.
The Economic Development Commission launched an updated version of its web site featuring the EDC's new marketing approach featuring Hagerstown-Washington County as the Crossroads of Commerce. Ground was broken for the 162,000 square-foot FedEx Freight service center in Hagerstown last October. The facility will be four times larger than the existing center on Industry Drive. 593 new jobs were created and another 621 announced through industry relocation or expansion in 2008. Hagerstown Regional Airport's runway extension is allowing expansion of existing high-tech companies with initial estimates of over 500 high paying jobs near term.
Challenges lie ahead in Planning, Public Safety, Environmental Management and Community Initiatives.
Major issues regarding budgeting and financial issues have been addressed, with Washington County finding itself in a better position than other Maryland Counties, and adjoining regions, Barr said.
To deal with the impending economic downturn this years' budget for internal service agencies had an increase of only .68% over the prior year. This years' budget had a reduction in borrowing of millions of dollars over previously programmed amounts, and included a 1.42% increase in cash for schools and roads to help reduce borrowing requirements and offset reductions in excise tax funding. While still posing an impact it is of significance that the excise tax accounts for less that 10% of overall project funding.
The County has conservative baseline expenses in the face of flat revenue projections for the upcoming year. Additional paygo money for projects, or to offset state cuts, has been put into place instead of into baseline costs. These measures have allowed Washington County to remain stable in the face of difficult economic times. The County's bond ratings have risen and the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada was presented to the Department of Budget and Finance in 2008. Meanwhile, the property tax rate for Washington County remains at 94.8 cents per $100 of full assessed value. Fund reserves have been fully funded. The County Administrator has asked for flat funding of this year's operating budget where practical. An enhanced priority ranking system has been initiated, which allows for detailed prioritization of all projects submitted to the Capital Improvement Budget based on overall necessity and public impact. Collected hotel/motel tax funds are being distributed directly to municipalities, creating an additional revenue source to help with local projects.
Barr said that "conservative measures are required to maintain stability and protect our viability. The County must wait to see what impact the upcoming State budget may have on reserves and ultimately our financial stability, but we believe that we have positioned the County in a manner that will allow us to ride out the current economic downturn, and provide help for our citizens to do the same. We look forward to your continued support as we work for you in the challenging days that lie ahead."