County Comment: Snook Cites Strong Economy, Low Cost of Government In State of the County Address
Snook Cites Strong Economy, Low Cost of Government In State of the County Address
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer
Washington County Board of County Commissioners' President Gregory I. Snook told 175 civic leaders that Washington County has a strong economic outlook while providing Maryland's best return on the government services dollar during the 2006 State of the County Address at the Four Points Hotel in Hagerstown on February 7.
Snook talked about how the current Board of County Commissioners has performed over the past three years, with an emphasis on gains made over the last 12 months.
Snook presented an overview of Washington County Finances, citing strong ratings by the various Bond agencies, including Fitch, which gave the County an AA rating in 2005. Fitch called the County's financial position sound and said Capital needs are manageable due to growth-related fees and taxes. At the same time, Standard and Poor's rating agency said that the County's good financial performance and position is bolstered by good reserve levels and established policies. In evaluating the County's financial status, Moody's bond rating agency said that debt burden is expected to remain manageable, Snook said.
Refinancing of Water and Sewer debt has saved the County $13 million in interest fees over the past several years. Cash reserves, the amount of funds it would take to operate County government in a disastrous situation, such as Hurricane Katrina, will reach $28 million this year, enough to operate 60 days, Snook said.
The current Commissioners have taken on some tough assignments, such as growth management and school capacity. The revision of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance strengthened the School Capacity Analysis, Initiated developer mitigation options and gave guidance to the County's municipalities in adopting similar ordinances.
The revised Excise Tax ordinance ensures that development pays for impacts to the County infrastructure, providing funding for construction of new schools and renovations to existing schools, improving roads, constructing libraries and parks and assisting Public Safety.
The Highway Maintenance Program has been strengthened through revisions to the Road Adequacy Policy. All county highways are being videotaped, so that conditions of each road will be made clear. The aggressive program of road repair or reconstruction has a funding goal of $25 million over the next five years, Snook said.
Agricultural Preservation has been expanded with an increase to permanent easements by 5,421 acres in the rural areas. More than $16.8 million has been invested in the preservation program, and there are 20,200 acres currently under easement in the County.
The Comprehensive Rezoning of then Rural Areas has directed growth towards the urbanized parts of the County, where water and sewer utilities are more readily available. Increases in state and federal environmental regulations have been handled and programs put into place to deal with regulatory compliance, Snook said.
The issue of funding education was the top priority for this sitting Board, Snook said. Public School operating budgets have been fully funded and capacity issues have been addressed. The Current Commissioners have budgeted for 4 new schools and 4 addition or renovation projects to increase student capacity. An $80 million backlog of maintenance issues at older schools is being addressed and the Commissioners are supporting the Public Schools' long-term maintenance plan.
Snook cited operational funding that grew from $80 million in fiscal year 2003, to more than $90 million by FY 2006. The capital program for schools increased from just below $6 million in FY 2003 to over $15 million in FY 2006. Additional increases are being sought in the Board of Education budget for FY '07.
The hurricanes of 2005 showed that in order for local governments to be able to protect citizens, adequate governmental communications must exist. The current Board has improved communications for County, City and State police, fire and ambulance companies through finalizing plans for a new Public Safety Communications system and making upgrades to the 9-1-1 telephone system. The County's Emergency Response Plan has been and continues to be updated. The Washington County Sheriff's Department budget was fully funded under the current Board's direction.
Economic Development has brought 900 new jobs into the County just this year, and attracted over $80 million in new investment. The County's average wage has increased as a result of the number of jobs that average over $18 per hour in wages.
The Airport Improvement Program continues on budget and on time, and will be completed by the fall of 2007, Snook said. New investment at Hagerstown Regional Airport has increased by $7.5 million since 2002. The same time period has seen more than 300 new jobs added at the airfield, Snook said.
On-line bill paying and permit processing showed a continued commitment towards streamlining the operations of County government.
Fast Tracking of the new Washington County Hospital is taking place through expanded plan review and permitting activities.
Efficiency of Government services is high in Washington County, with statewide statistics provided by the 2006 Dept of Legislative Services publication "Overview of Local Governments"
showing our County as lowest in per-capita cost for general government operations. Our cost of doing government business, at $2,263.00 is 20% lower than the Maryland average of $3,331.00. By comparison, Frederick County government operations costs each taxpayer $2,894.00, while government services per person in Allegany County are $2,753.00 and Garrett County averages $3,406.00.