County Comment State of the County Called Solid
by Norman Bassett,
Washington County Public Information Officer
Even with tight economic times and cuts in state funding, 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 Tuesday, February 17.
In the annual “State of the County” address Snook told those gathered at the Sheraton-Four Points Hotel that Washington County was “solid” in 2003, with a strong, diversified local economy, revenues meeting and exceeding expectations, and a low unemployment rate. The unemployment rate average for 2003 was 4.4%, below state and national levels.
The Commissioners’ President cited seven proposed goals for the coming year dealing with Highway Pavement Maintenance, Rural Area Zoning, E-government Services, Employee Recognition, Working with Municipalities to develop policies to increase the urban tax base, Development of a program to utilize the runway extension, increase the tax base and promote the advantages of the Foreign Trade Zone at Hagerstown Regional Airport, and Emergency Medical Services planning.
The County’s strong local economy, highlighted by 919 new jobs announced in 2003, new industrial projects accounting for more than $177 million in new private investment in the county, and more than 800,000 square feet of new industrial construction either underway or completed, continues to attract business and industry.
Significant economic development projects for the year included the $26 million, 150 job project at Mack Trucks, a $60 million project at Intelsat’s Mountainside Teleport Corporation, and Engineered Polymer Solutions’ (EPS) $10 million project at its Williamsport site. The new $53.5 million FedEx Ground facility that will create 400 new jobs, the Home Depot regional distribution facility employing 230, and a $17.8, million flatbed facility for Lowe’s are good indicators of the County’s ability to weather national and state fiscal storms. Snook called the Lowe’s project, located in the CSX Valley Business Park off Wesel Boulevard, an outstanding example of City, County and State cooperation.
Strong leadership, fiscal prudence and responsible management of taxpayer resources helped the county end Fiscal Year 2003 with a $2.8 million surplus while many Maryland jurisdictions struggled to meet their financial responsibilities. The county’s General Fund Cash Reserve policy has helped meet anticipated shortfalls in state funding, and been a positive indicator for financial rating agencies such as Moody’s, which gave the county a “positive outlook” in FY 2003. Washington County was the only county in the state to receive such an endorsement from the agency.
Fiscal responsibility and proper management means that Washington County is able to pursue its utility debt reduction plan. Between Fiscal Year 2000 and 2007, the debt level will have been reduced by $24.3 million. Working with Maryland Water Quality, refinancing of loans will save $2.5 to $3 million in interest costs over the next several years.
Funding for Kindergarten through 12th grade education has shown a steady increase over the past 5 years, from $57 million in 1999, to $76.6 million in 2004, or 34%. During that same period, the number of students in county schools has increased by about 400, or the population of one elementary school.
Washington County is pursuing strategies to cope with residential and educational growth such as the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance requiring developers to contribute to the cost of new schools and roads based on the impact the development has on the county infrastructure. An example is the new Maugansville Elementary School, which will have a significant portion of construction costs coming directly from new residential growth occurring in the north end of the county. A goal for 2004 will be to work with the nine municipalities to adopt APFO policies and fees, increasing infrastructure funding through government cooperation.
The Excise/Transfer Tax is developing revenue for education, for public safety initiatives, for agricultural preservation and for “PAYGO” funding to pay for projects without incurring additional debt.
Snook cited the Comprehensive Land Use Plan adopted in 2002 as a tool to help regulate growth in the rural areas of the county. The recently appointed Task Force will provide citizen input on equity issues and programs, including transferable development rights, installment purchase agreements, and other bonus-type programs. That group will make recommendations on permitted uses, small parcels and lot exemptions as well.
Groundbreaking for the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway extension project is set for April 20th. Bids for construction of the project are out and the bid should be awarded by March. The extension is important in bringing regional jet service to the area and for economic development. The project will use County-owned resources such as excess fill dirt to reduce costs and produce revenue for the Landfill.
Challenges lie ahead, and the county will be guarding against impact on its citizens in terms of educational funding or reductions in highway user revenue as the State struggles to balance its budget. Close working ties with the Washington County Delegation to the Maryland General Assembly will help make sure that the County receives its full fair share in state funding, Snook said.
The State of the County Address is hosted annually by the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce, and was sponsored this year by M & T Bank.