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From the Desk of County Commissioner Candidate Bob White

Watch Out for the "Hidden Tax"

By Bob White, Republican Candidate for Frederick County Commissioner

Voters in Frederick County’s elections this year seem to be focusing on two major issues. The first is how we balance the county budget. Republican County Commissioner candidates (I am one) are pretty much in lock-step saying "no tax increases," and "balance the budget by cutting expenses and programs." A number of Democratic candidates for Commissioner are echoing those same words.

The other big issue is economic growth – bringing new businesses to the county that can provide more jobs. Unemployment here in Frederick County is running at over 6.5%. While that is well below the nation’s average, it is double the unemployment rate we have had in past years. Most all the candidates of both parties (again, including me) also support new business development and job growth.

So, when everyone is saying the same thing on the big issues, how do you distinguish among the 19 candidates for County Commissioner? The answer is that you have to look at HOW they would do what they are promising. For example, at least one candidate already has suggested cutting 75 firefighter positions, while others would preserve critical police, fire and life safety programs as well as our quality public education system, and look elsewhere for cuts.

Bigger differences show up when you look at individual candidates’ positions on economic growth and jobs. We know economic growth is generally a good thing. New businesses provide jobs and pay more money to the county in taxes than they use in services. The only question one has to ask about a new business coming to Frederick County is: "are the jobs it creates going to go to Frederick County residents?" If a new company hires locally it is a big net plus for the county residents and the county taxpayers. But if the company is bringing its employees along from another location its positive impact on the county is seriously diluted.

The most critical factor to look for is a candidate’s position on residential growth and development. Here is where you can tell the real differences among BOCC contenders. Unlike other kinds of business growth, residential development does not pay for itself. New residential construction has to be supported with county-provided infrastructure, including water service, sewer service, schools, libraries, parks, police, fire and ambulance service and much more. The amount of money the average new resident pays in county property and income taxes does not cover the cost to the county for either the capital or the operating expenses associated with that resident – and that is the "Hidden Tax."

Through business growth, the county should be able to absorb the costs of some additional new development every year. But if that development is unrestrained, as it was for many years in Frederick County, it leads to two inevitable results: (1) a strain on the county’s ability to provide necessary infrastructure and services for the growth and (2) an increase in taxes to pay for those needed services. Either way, county residents suffer the consequences – decreased services, increased taxes or – worst of all - both. This is the "hidden tax" of unrestrained residential development.

From 1986 till 2001 residential development in Frederick County was virtually unrestrained. During this time we averaged over 2,000 new homes a year. This reached a peak in the year 2000 when we permitted over 3,000 new homes in the county. And what was the result of this booming growth? Overcrowded schools with a proliferation of "portable classrooms;" main roadways that approached gridlock at peak hours; a lack of needed park lands; and a strain on essential police, fire and life safety services. Worse, as population in our area increased, not only did the demands for existing services increase, but demand for new varieties of services also increased…putting even more cost burdens on the taxpayers.

Residential development is a dangerous two-edged sword. On the one side it is a necessity – the county population will continue to grow. On the other, without thoughtful controls it places this massive hidden tax on current county residents. It becomes critically important to balance our residential growth with our ability, as a county, to pay for the infrastructure and additional operating expenses that are generated by new residential growth.

Beginning in 2002 we began to get a handle on our residential growth. With the exception of 2005, every year since then our annual residential development has been well under 2,000 new units. This has allowed us to catch up. The current economic downturn also has taken some of the growth pressure off – for the moment. Our school system now is operating, on average, at its goal of under 100% of its capacity. We have added libraries and parks. We have kept up with essential services. Only the increased, sometimes gridlocked, traffic on our roads remains as the most intractable and costly problem of all – and we’re working on that.

But what happens if we don’t recognize this hidden tax of unrestrained residential development? We could quickly be back to where we were in the ‘90’s with overcrowded schools, even worse traffic, and services that can’t meet the demands of our citizens. Beware the candidate who says we can use residential development to grow our way to prosperity. No city or county ever "grew" itself out of financial problems. Instead, the larger a city or county grows, the more costly life there becomes, in taxes and in demands for new and increased government service. The "top of the list" example has to be New York City. If growth could eliminate financial problems, New York would be rolling in the green stuff. Instead its level of services is marginal, while its citizens are among the most highly taxed anywhere in the country. If New York City could tax breathing, it probably would. This is not the example of growth that Frederick County residents would like to copy!

So as you get ready to vote, make sure you ask the candidates where they stand on residential development. If they do not want to balance residential development with the county’s ability to pay for it and service it, then they are among those who are likely to stick you, the taxpayer, with this giant "Hidden Tax."

Read position papers of other candidates running in the 2010 primary