Budget cuts, taxes concerns for Garrett County residents
MCHENRY — Don’t mind Joyce Bishoff if she is a bit perplexed.
During a November tourism conference in Ocean City, the interim president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce heard Gov. Martin O’Malley state that tourism is the only industry in the state that is showing a return on government’s investment.
Why, then, Bishoff asked Sen. George Edwards and Delegate Wendell Beitzel, would the state Office of Tourism slash Garrett County’s appropriation by 40 percent?
Bishoff said state tourism officials have signaled to her that the remaining 60 percent soon could be unavailable.
“This is causing some severe pains through the tourism industry,” Bishoff asked on Wednesday during the legislative delegation’s pre-legisative session at Garrett College. The two-hour event was coordinated by the local League of Women Voters chapter. Twelve speakers at the meeting discussed a wide range of topics, including tourism, wind turbines, natural gas, emergency services and funding for public education.
Bishoff said a request to the delegation by the Garrett County commissioners to introduce legislation that could lead to an increase in the accommodation tax, which would impact all hotels and beds-and-breakfasts in the county. The commissioners want the ability to increase the tax to up to 8 percent from the current 5 percent rate.
“We will continue our dialogue with the county commissioners as to our reservations,” Bishoff said. “We’re very concerned about raising any taxes. With so many areas of our economy in crisis, I think we need to do what we can do to encourage people to come here and spend their dollars from the city.”
James R. “Smokey” Stanton, chairman of the Garrett County Democratic Central Committee, asked the legislators to reject the commissioners’ request.
Stanton, who is expected to run for the District 1A delegation seat currently occupied by Beitzel, called it “a bad bill” and that area businesses depend on tourism. If rates were to go up, consumers would have a choice of other places such as Ocean City. Stanton said if such a bill is introduced, funds raised from that legislation should not be earmarked for a specific purpose.
“I would suggest that is a really bad idea,” Stanton said.
Representatives of Garrett County vacation rental agencies expressed their displeasure at the proposed legislation during the commissioners’ public meeting with the delegation in Oakland on Nov. 17. Wendy Yoder, county director of finance, said an increase of 1 percent could generate about $300,000 in new revenue.
Edwards said either bill would only permit the county commissioners to consider passing such a rate increase. It would not require them to do so “if they didn’t want to,” Edwards said. Most of the issues discussed during the public forum regarded state and local budgets. Beitzel said some economists have said the current crisis is the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression. But one key Garrett County industry — coal mining — is at risk despite its economic benefits, Beitzel said.
“I know there’s been a big effort to stop mountaintop removal of coal,” Beitzel said. “We don’t do that in Western Maryland (but) it turns out it may actually apply to all mountaintop mining. Coal has become a dirty, four-letter word, and we really need to fight and defend that industry here in Western Maryland.”
James M. Raley, member of the Garrett County Board of Education, said at the board’s meeting Tuesday, members learned that the board is looking at a decrease in funding from either the state or the county — or possibly both.
Next year, Raley said, the board is looking at a $2 million deficit, and there’s concern that there will be a push in Annapolis to shift the burden of funding teachers’ pensions to county governments. Currently, it is a state responsibility.
“That just compounds (the county’s) problem in regards to funding public education,” Raley said.
Garrett County Commissioner Fred Holliday shared Raley’s concern.
“There is no way we could eat it,” Holliday said. “We’d have to raise taxes. Then the commissioners are the bad guys.”