By HEATHER KEELS
10:28 PM EDT, May 12, 2011
Each time a speaker mentioned the words "senior center" during a Washington County budget hearing Thursday night, the Hager Hall conference room filled with the whop-whop-whop of flapping cardboard as audience members waved "Seniors for Our Own Senior Center" signs.
The sign wavers made up the largest portion of a crowd of about 130 people who attended the hearing on the county's proposed $292.6 million budget for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1.
About 40 people signed up to speak at the hearing.
Senior center supporters — many of whom were staff or board members of the Washington County Commission on Aging — encouraged the Board of County Commissioners to proceed with plans to build a $5.8 million senior center on the Hagerstown Community College campus.
About $2.2 million in capital funding is proposed to go toward that project in the next fiscal year.
Supporters stressed that Washington County is the only jurisdiction in the state without a permanent senior center and that the space currently rented from Girls Inc. as a temporary senior center is both limited and expensive.
"It's quite clear that money actually can be saved if a senior center was built," said Polly Wetzel of Hagerstown, a volunteer at the temporary senior center. "As baby boomers approaching senior status, we, the forerunners of Washington County, should not be shoved on the backburner any longer."
Another hot topic at the hearing was the county's proposal to begin building roads through the Mount Aetna Farms property between Hagerstown Community College and Meritus Medical Center.
Proposed updates to the county's Capital Improvement Plan include a plan to connect Yale Drive behind Meritus Medical Center to a new back entrance to HCC at a cost of about $9 million.
"If you put this road in, my question is, what is that (Mount Aetna Farms land) worth now, and what will that land be worth once that road is put in on taxpayers' dollars?" Ray Givens asked. "In my opinion, I think it's going to be considerably more."
Noting that the county previously passed up an opportunity to buy the Mount Aetna Farms property, Givens urged the commissioners to buy the land, if possible, then sell it to developers after the roads are built.
"That way, it becomes a sweetheart deal for the county and the taxpayers of this county, rather than a sweetheart deal for the developers," he said.
Others suggested there were better ways to spend the money than building roads through Mount Aetna Farms. Oscar Evans and Bryan Gabriel, both of Sharpsburg, Md., stressed the need for attention to south county's neglected roads.
Supporters of HCC and Washington County Free Library made up another significant portion of the speakers, sharing personal testimonials and resounding calls for continued support.
During a presentation before the public comment period, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray emphasized the county's conservative budget practices, reminding citizens that no increase in the property tax rate is proposed and stressing that Washington County has the lowest expenditures per capita of any in the state.
Nevertheless, some called for still more conservative budget practices.
"Stick to mandated issues that you're mandated to do," Dennis Stouffer advised. "Be careful with the frills."
Stouffer called for the county to lower the tax rate and to move toward a point when it would not have to borrow any money.
The county commissioners are scheduled to discuss comments from the budget hearing on Tuesday during their meeting in the County Administration Building at 100 W. Washington St.
Budget discussions are scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday, and a public work session on Mount Aetna Farms road infrastructure is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.
Barring any unresolved issues, the commissioners will vote on the budget the following Tuesday, May 24, Murray said.
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