County Comment Snook Delivers State of the County Address
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer
Even with tight economic times Washington County is in good shape in terms of business development, low unemployment rates and financial strategies, Board of County Commissioners’ President Greg Snook said on Wednesday, February 4th.
In the annual “State of the County” address, Snook told the crowd of nearly 200 that challenges lie ahead, but Washington County finds itself in a good position to meet those challenges due to a number of factors.
Snook cited a learning curve for new leadership at the State and local level. Statewide 48% of Commissioners of Maryland Counties, 33% of the House of Delegates and 25% of the state Senate, as well as the Governorship have experienced changes. This will mean a tight year budgetarily, as new leaders seek ways to solve old problems.
Snook told the gathering that the Commissioners’ Initiatives for 2003 reflect changing economic and political times. The new Board is searching for operational efficiencies, engaging in strategic and financial planning, enhancing economic development programs, supporting education through partnerships and looking at operational efficiencies, moving ahead with community planning and zoning issues, developing business plans for County Water and Sewer facilities while seeking solutions to City/County water and wastewater issues, developing ways to communicate better with citizens through improved access to government through public information and electronic government, and continuing to improve emergency services at all levels in the County.
Snook talked about the financial responsibility the new and past Boards have accepted. Sound financial planning and a strong local economy played major roles in securing improved bond ratings from Moody’s, Inc. and Standard and Poor’s (S&P), the two most prominent bond rating agencies in the U.S. The A1 and A+ ratings helped Washington County secure 4.1% interest on this year’s $7.5 million bond sale. Snook said the rate is the lowest in the entire time the County has issued bonds. $5 million of the bonds sold this year will benefit School construction and repairs.
The County’s tax base has grown at 4.5% for the past five years, unemployment is lower than the state and national averages, and business retention and expansion continues at a positive rate.
Snook said that Lenox and Mack Trucks are two of the bedrock industries in Washington County, combining for $145 million in business expansion. The fact that Mountainside Teleport Corporation, a subsidiary of Intelsat Global Service Corporation has recently become the first major anchor for Allegheny Power’s Friendship Technology Park shows that industry recognizes Washington County as a good place to do business. Mountainside’s $50 million investment in the community will build a state of the art satellite communications facility on 55 acres of the business park, and employ 60 people.
The company chose that location due to the public/private partnership of Allegheny Power and the County’s Economic Development Commission, and was assisted through the state’s “New Jobs Tax Credit” program.
Moody’s and S&P also cited the County’s healthy financial performance as a reason for the bond upgrades, with sound budgetary practices and Water/Sewer debt reduction shown as prime indicators.
The coming year will see funding for Education ranked again as a top Board priority, continuing the trend that has seen Operational Budgets in the school system rise by 28.7% from 1999 to 2003. The 2003 County budget saw 58.6% of the General Fund go to K-12 Education operations.
In order to continue that trend, new sources of revenue have been sought, and legislative authority may be given for an excise tax and a transfer tax. Both affect real estate transactions, and will provide funding for Education capital improvements, help lower the overall debt level, improve public safety and help preserve the county’s agricultural heritage.
Snook also called attention to transportation issues as Hagerstown Regional Airport continues to function as the “gateway to our community”, contributing over $50 million annually to the local economy. The lengthening of the main runway will increase safety zones around the facility, provide needed accommodation for regional jet aircraft used by major air carriers, assist in homeland security efforts and support Presidential flight operations.
Changes in the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, to be implemented in the coming year, target development to urban growth areas, assist economic development, and help identify future transportation needs.
A long list of challenges lays ahead, Snook said, with review of departmental budget line-item requests, possible consolidation of programs, and other operational efficiencies being investigated.
The state’s reduction of Highway User funds by 46% to pay for educational programs will have an impact on County operations, but effects on government services to County citizens should be minimal, Snook said.