By Guy Leonard, St. Mary's County Times
HOLLYWOOD, Md.—The Commissioners of St. Marys County were quick to laud the benefits of a switch to code home rule at a public hearing in Ridge last week but members of the small gathering were not so convinced.
Some there feared that the proposed move to code home rule from the commissioner form of government,which the county has held for nearly 200 years, would give local elected leaders too much control closer to home.
If the current form of government had worked for so long, they said, why change it now?
Roy Fedders, noting information from the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) orientation for the newly elected, said that code home rule could allow leaders to levy or raise fines for certain civil infractions, though there were some limitations.
Also the commissioners could establish impact fees along with an excise tax on school construction as well as an excise tax on agriculture if the county is not currently levying an impact fee, according to the information from MACO.
What code home rule promises is more taxes and fees of all kinds, Fedders said.
Keith Harless said he chaffed at the provision that allowed citizens 40 days to get 10 percent of voter signatures on a referendum to oppose an action commissioners took under home rule and of the greater power they would have overall.
Its hard to muster up interest in that amount of time, Harless said. This would entrench the power [of elected officials.]
Elected leaders said that recent events at the legislture in Annapolis put into sharper focus the need for more local autonomy in creating new local laws without the approval of state officials.
The key example of this was the failure of a measure offered by the county delegation this past session that would have allowed the county to eliminate the personal property tax most businesses paid on equipment and other operations items.
Elected leaders here said it could have been a boon to economic development as tax relief to businesses but acknowledged that they already had the authority to zero out that tax rate on a yearly basis. Del. Deb Rey, Dist. 29 B, asked why this was brought up now as an issue and not during the 2014 campaign.
She wanted to know when residents could ask questions of commissioners about the proposal but Commissioner Tom Jarboe, directing the meeting in the place of Commissioner President James Guy, said they were only accepting comments about the home rule issue.
Bill Scarafia, executive director of the St. Marys County Chamber of Commerce, said code home rule was the best balance between autonomy and public ovesight.
We feel that this change would improve the efficiency of government to respond to the needs of our community in a timely manner, Scarafia said. It will still require public discourse before action is taken with this added authority, and it still allows the community to hold the commissioners accountable.
County Attorney George Sparling encapuslated the supporting argument for code home rule by noting that five locally elected commissioners would be able to decide what laws were right for the county instead of a majority of 188 legislators in Annapolis who had to agree to approve local laws proposed by the delegation.
Most local laws are approved through a practice of local courtesy that defers to the desires of those delegations, with some exceptions.
Sparling also pointed out that under code home rule, commissioners could not enact any new taxes or license and franchise fees.
It [code home rule] does not transfer financial authority from the General Assembly to the county commissioners in its entirety, Sparling said.
There are six more hearings regarding code home rule in St. Marys County; after the hearings the commissioners will decide whether to proceed with a resolution to the local board of elections which will then put it to a referendum vote in the November 2016 election.
If approved by a majority of voters code home rule would be the new government structure by December of next year.