The 59th Carroll County Board of Commissioners has come and is nearly gone, with the 60th board set to be sworn in Tuesday. Early in the group's four-year term, the board members dubbed themselves the "Fighting 59th," citing their duty and desire to protect the residents of Carroll County.

This group of commissioners, the first five-member board elected by district, found themselves in the middle of several controversial and headline-making decisions during their term, as well as a lawsuit filed by some county residents that is still ongoing for the board's decision to begin each commissioner session with a prayer.


The all-Republican board circumvented the state-mandated rain tax, opposed the United Nations' Agenda 21, declared the county a Second Amendment sanctuary, created the Education Opportunity Fund and made the Sheriff's Office the primary law enforcement agency in the county.

They also made many decisions that were lauded by residents and politicians alike. They improved the county's services to veterans, lowered taxes four years in a row and got the county out of a cost-sharing plan with Frederick County to construct a waste-to-energy incinerator plant.


"When [the commissioners] were elected, they had to put what is best for the county in the forefront," said Larry Helminiak, chairman of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee. "In their hearts, they all believe what they did was in the best interests of the county."

Commissioners ran on passing a master plan, rejecting 'Pathways' plan

When the commissioners were running for office, they all ran on the platform of developing and passing a master plan during this term. With the current board's term ending Monday, there has not been a vote to approve the draft master plan.

At the last public hearing on Nov. 5, six of the 23 residents who testified asked the planning and zoning commission to postpone approving the plan until the new board of commissioners takes office. Since the new board will have to work within the confines of the master plan, they should have a say on what goes into it, said District 3 Commissioner-elect Dennis Frazier.


When the current commissioners took office, they were faced with the decision to either accept or reject the master plan that had been developed during the previous board's term, known as the "Pathways" plan.

Many residents were upset about the changes proposed for southwestern Carroll County, Helminiak said, because it called for changes to the land-use designation of several properties in the area, which the residents were vehemently against.

More than 1,200 residents came out to speak at the public hearings for the Pathways plan, said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, and all but 13 were opposed.

"The proof is in the pudding," Rothschild said. "You can tell what kind of job you do by the level of opposition."

The commissioners chose to reject the plan, and the planning commission, which is responsible for developing the plan, went back to the drawing board.

"The classic comment from witnesses [who spoke during public hearings] is 'I moved to Carroll for its rural flavor, away from the urban sprawl, and now you want to change that and I'm against it, wherever it is,'" Helminiak said.

Now, four years later, the new draft of the master plan has been fully vetted and less than 200 people have either testified at hearings or otherwise corresponded with the planning commission.

Rothschild, who won re-election, said the new plan strikes the proper balance between fulfilling the government's role to plan and respecting the desire of citizens who don't want urban planners re-engineering their neighborhoods.

Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, R-District 2, said the planning commission has worked very hard to develop a plan that will satisfy all parties and — aside from some minor tweaking — it will be in a good position to be passed by the new board, which takes office Tuesday, Dec. 2. Shoemaker, who won election to the House of Delegates, won't be on the next board.

However, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, R-District 1, said the plan needs more than just minor tweaking, particularly in regard to one property.

Known as the DiMaggio property in the master plan, its land-use designation was downgraded to business neighborhood retail from business general after public outcry against the property owner's intent to enlarge his vehicle repair business by constructing a large building on the site.

Those who spoke out against it during the public hearing Nov. 5 said it did not fit with the surrounding fabric of the neighborhood. The landowner was not involved in the discussion to change the designation; therefore, he has been denied both due process and just compensation for the money he put into the project, said Frazier, who also will not be a part of the next board.

If the property's designation is not changed back to business general, the plan should be rejected by the new board of commissioners, Frazier said.

By changing the property's designation in the plan without notifying the owner or allowing him to participate in any discussions surrounding the change, the planning commission has violated his individual property rights, Rothschild said.

"The landowner was assured by a previous board that the property's designation allowed for such a construction, yet he has now been denied the right to build on his property which is a violation of both the state and federal constitutions," Rothschild said.

In the past, the master plan has focused primarily on maintaining the agricultural areas in the county, but the new plan shifts its focus to economic development to relieve some of the tax burden from homeowners, said Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who was re-elected to the board.

Though the Pathways plan incorporated the same shift, the planning commission did it in a way that was particularly unpopular, said Commissioner Dave Roush, R-District 3. Pathways attempted to change the land-use designation of properties that the land owner had not requested and usually did not want.

"This time around, we took the approach of seeking out those who wanted to develop their property to the extent that it was consistent with good planning principles," said Roush, who will not be part of the next board.

The majority of the 6,732 properties that have had their land-use designation changed have not met opposition, but a property in Taneytown that was the proposed site of a plasma gasification plant received much criticism. Of the almost 200 correspondences and testimonials received by the planning commission, more than half regarded a 90-acre portion of a larger property whose owner had requested its designation be changed to heavy industrial.

On Oct. 29, the planning commission chose to remove the heavy industrial designation and return it to agricultural preservation.

Opted out of the waste-to-energy plant in Frederick County


The previous board had gotten the county involved in a cost-sharing plan to construct a waste-to-energy plant in Frederick County to deal with the county's long-term solid waste disposal.


Howard said after doing extensive research into the evolving solid waste management industry, the commissioners realized the plant would have been far more costly than utilizing the county's Northern Landfill and continuing with long-hauling of waste outside of Carroll County.

Rothschild said long-hauling may not be fashionable, but it is incredibly cost-effective. He said he believes the industry is at the point where, in the next 10 years, there will be amazing breakthroughs in technology that will enable the county to dispose of waste far more effectively than the waste-to-energy incinerator ever could.

"Would you want to invest in buggy whips one year before Ford invented the Model T?" Rothschild said.

The commissioners negotiated out of the contract with Frederick County and had to pay $1 million to do so, but this saved taxpayers from spending far more on the research, development and construction of the plant, Helminiak said.

Though the commissioners increased long-hauling services in the county and opted out of the plant in Frederick County, they did not take solid steps in addressing the issues surrounding long-term waste disposal, Shoemaker said, something the new board will have to address rather quickly.

Prayer before meetings leads to lawsuit

The 59th board is also mired in controversy surrounding its decision to open each commissioner meeting with a prayer.

The decision led to a lawsuit being filed in 2013 by Carroll County residents Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely. They were later joined by residents Judy Smith and Lauren Graybill, as well as the American Humanist Association. Lawyers for the plaintiffs contend that it is unconstitutional for commissioners to open a meeting with a sectarian prayer.

In March of this year, U.S. District Court of Maryland Judge William D. Quarles Jr. issued a preliminary injunction preventing the commissioners from continuing this practice until the court had returned with a decision.

In May, however, this injunction was lifted after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway and affirmed that town's constitutional right to open its board meetings with Christian prayer.

Barbara Weller, an attorney representing the county in the case, said the Supreme Court has already settled the issue of legislative prayer in its Greece vs. Galloway case, so they are thinking the court will uphold the decision.

"We are looking forward to winning this case as soon as it gets back to court," Weller said.

Shortly after the Supreme Court's decision, the board of commissioners unanimously approved a resolution formalizing the practice of prayer before meetings, as the Supreme Court decision indicated a governing body planning on opening its meeting with a sectarian prayer must have a formalized process.

"I think all of us should hope for and ask for divine guidance in everything that we do," Roush said. "Certainly for myself, the work of this board is important and deserves some of that guidance."

Howard said the commissioners in no way intended the prayers to exclude any religion, which is why every commissioner refers only to themselves when praying rather than speaking for the group.

"I don't think anyone should find it offensive," he said.

Rothschild said the commissioners will not let themselves be censored and that no one can deny them their right to freedom of speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment.

"We have the option to deliver it to the deity of our choice and it is consistent with the ideals of both the Maryland and federal constitutions," he said. "If we expect the providence of God's blessing we need to properly recognize him in government meetings."

Carroll County declared Second Amendment sanctuary

In response to the passage of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Firearm Safety Act of 2013, the commissioners voted to approve a resolution in support of Second Amendment rights last year.

The state law banned the sale of 45 military-style assault weapons, required fingerprinting for gun ownership, reduced the number of bullets magazines can legally hold from 20 to 10 and prohibited the mentally ill from owning guns.

According to Rothschild, the county's resolution, titled the "Second Amendment Preservation Resolution," was a symbolic gesture intended to make state and federal agencies aware that the commissioners do not approve of the act, which he said he believes infringes on Carroll County residents' Second Amendment rights.

"It wasn't a perfect resolution and it had mixed results, but it proved we could fight back against federal powers," he said.

Sheriff Ken Tregoning, of the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, said the resolution did not affect their duties or performance. They have had no violations of the new gun laws, so they have not had an opportunity to enforce them.

In Carroll County, Tregoning said, there is a different culture and mentality when it comes to firearms. Many residents either collect guns, hunt or both. He would never circumvent the law for any citizen, but in the same vein he wants to enforce the spirit of the law — not the letter of it, he said.

"The commissioners were trying to make a statement about the spirit of the Second Amendment, not chide the governor or state legislation," Tregoning said.

Commissioners opt out of ICLEI, Agenda 21

In 2011, the commissioners voted unanimously to leave the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives due to the group's support of the United Nations' Agenda 21, which would enact certain land-use policies that would be incompatible with citizens' property rights, Rothschild said.

"[Agenda 21] states that free market economies cannot be trusted so governments should determine the best use of the land without the consideration of property owners," Rothschild said.

Helminiak said the commissioners' decision to opt out of the ICLEI was the most notable memory of the Fighting 59th. Carroll County became the first local government to do so, and many other counties — some as far away as California — followed in its footsteps.

"Carroll County gained national prominence, and that's significant whether you agree with it or not," Helminiak said.

Shoemaker said the impetus behind leaving ICLEI was to save taxpayer money. By choosing not to adhere to Agenda 21, he said, the county saved money by not having to invest in the creation of regulatory policies, and they were able to abolish the county's Office of Sustainability.

However, he also said he wasn't necessarily taking a stand against the agenda.


"Frankly, before I took office I had never heard of it," Shoemaker said. "In the pantheon of things the board accomplished or didn't, that's not exactly high up."

Roush said he was never overly concerned with Agenda 21, and that his focus was and has always been on the rights and needs of the citizens of Carroll County.

"I never felt like it was necessary that [Carroll County] did more than what state laws already require," Roush said.

Howard said though he was very concerned with what Agenda 21 attempted to do, he disagrees with the notion that gaining national prominence was significant. When politicians get so wrapped up in garnering media attention and making headlines, this can become a distraction, which may have hindered them in some of their other efforts, he said.

"I'd be just as happy to do a good job and not appear on the national scene," Howard said. "The folks that want to use local government to make national headlines are in the wrong job."

Sheriff's Office made primary law enforcement agency

One of the first decisions the 59th board made was approving the sheriff's office to be the primary law enforcement agency in Carroll County.

Prior to this, the Maryland State Police had stationed 45 troopers in Carroll County to supplement the sheriff's office and local police departments.

Tregoning, who came into office in 1998, said it was always his primary objective to get the sheriff's office more involved in enforcement. He was a member of the Maryland State Police prior to winning the sheriff's election, and had served for eight years at the department's Westminster Barrack.

"I knew [utilizing the Maryland State Police] was not the long-term answer to law enforcement in Carroll County," Tregoning said. "It was my belief that the [sheriff's] office would eventually become the primary agency; everything I did was to achieve that reality."

Rothschild said there were two main reasons for making the sheriff's office the primary law enforcement agency in the county. By hiring and equipping their own agency, they were able to save millions in taxpayer money and the commissioners wanted to ensure the residents of the county had a say in its law enforcement policies, he said.

It cost the county approximately $130,000 per state trooper stationed in the county, whereas it costs just $100,000 to field and equip a sheriff's deputy.

The commissioners chose to hire only 42 deputies as compared to 45 troopers, and factoring in an increase in cost per trooper the state was planning, the county's Bureau of Budget calculated that utilizing its own law enforcement agency would lead to a total savings of roughly $3 million every year for the next five years, Howard said.

Rothschild said the commissioners also wanted to ensure the agency responsible for the safety of the residents of Carroll County was also accountable to them.

"I want law enforcement accountable to Carroll County voters, not accountable to Annapolis politicians," he said.

English-only ordinance passes

The Commissioners began 2013 by unanimously passing an ordinance that requires all government documents and forums be presented in English.

Shoemaker, who introduced the ordinance, said it seemed like common sense to him. If all forms, documents and meetings are done solely in English, this will save the county extraordinary sums of money on translation, he said.

Rothschild said he knows of other counties that have been forced to review documents that have been submitted in other languages because they had not declared themselves as an English-only county.

"Once you open the door, where do you draw the line?" Rothschild said. "It opens the door for the county having to translate our documents into several languages and hire staff translators. This [English-only ordinance] has potentially saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars of year."

Carroll County is one of three counties in Maryland that have done this, and 35 states have also taken this step, Shoemaker said.

Shortly after the ordinance was passed, Carroll County residents said it sent a negative message to those attempting to learn English.

Rothschild said the commissioners were accused of being exclusionary and even intolerant of other people groups. The decision was not due to racial or prejudicial undertones, he said.

Reversal on airport expansion

In January 2012, the board voted 3-2 not to expand the Carroll County Regional Airport to accommodate larger class planes. They reversed this decision in April 2013 by a vote of 3-2, reaffirming the 2007 Airport Master Plan, which included expanding the runway and moving it to the northwest of the current one.

Roush said when he ran for office in 2010, he supported the expansion of the airport, but in the initial vote he opposed it. It wasn't until 15 months later he flip-flopped his vote to approve the expansion.

According to a previous Times article, the change was brought about by economic development, he said. An expanded airport could possibly draw businesses to the area, Roush said.

"A new project assessment and environmental impact assessment were required before the county could go forward with the project," he said recently. "I think we are near the completion of that process and it should move forward to the next steps sometime next year. We are still a ways from breaking ground, though."

The first phase of the project is estimated to cost $50 million, which consists of relocating the runway, and the second half will cost approximately $20 million, and will include the actual expansion.

Rothschild said the county will only have to pay $5 million for the project, and that the remaining $65 million will be funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Education Opportunity Fund

The commissioners created the Education Opportunity Fund during the Fiscal Year 2014 budget process, which ran from July 2013 to June 2014. The fund is designed to support and enhance the opportunities of non-public school children in Carroll County.

An initial $400,000 was put in the fund, which is about one-eighth of 1 percent of the county's public school system budget, Rothschild said. The county's public school budget for FY15 is approximately $330 million.

An additional $400,000 was added to the fund in FY15.

The nonprofit Community Foundation of Carroll County oversees the distribution of the funds, and it is to be used for anything that public school system students get for free, such as transportation.


"The fund recognizes the parents should choose what kind of education their children get, not government or ZIP codes," Rothschild said.

The creation of the fund has led to some controversy regarding the necessity of its creation.

Commissioner-elect Dennis Frazier said the county has placed too high of a priority on the fund.

"If everything that needs to be paid for is paid for, like the school system, police departments, nonprofits and decent occasional raises for county employees, I'd be all for it, but that's not the way it is," he said.

Lowered taxes four years in a row as promised

The commissioners successfully lowered taxes every year during their term.

Their first year in office, they lowered the property tax rate by two cents per $100 assessed value. The following year they lowered it another penny, and the third year by a quarter of a cent.

The property tax rate in Carroll stands at $1.018 per $100 of assessed value.

Robin Bartlett Frazier said she wanted to reduce the property tax by five cents, but these reductions were all steps in the direction of stimulating the economy by putting money back in the taxpayers' pockets.

The fourth year, they also trimmed the "piggyback" tax, Rothschild said. When someone pays state and federal taxes, a small portion of the money actually goes to the county. It "piggybacks" state and federal taxes before being returned to the county, he said.

"[The tax cuts] were all small cuts, but they sent a message to the business community that we wouldn't hurt them if they came to Carroll County," Rothschild said.

The county also took advantage of low interest rates to pay off a significant portion of debt that had accrued between 2004 and 2008, Roush said.

The county finalized the sale of $73.5 million in bonds Nov. 13, and $58.5 million of that will be used to pay off this existing debt. The county also received updated credit rating scores from three agencies in October, garnering two AAA ratings and one Aa1, one step below AAA.

Hidden story of board is economic development

As evidenced by the priority shift in the county's master plan, economic development is crucial to saving taxpayers' money and generating increased revenue, Howard said.

In the last year, several large businesses have relocated to Carroll County, including Fuchs Group, a national spice manufacturer; Carlisle Etcetera, a high-end fashion brand; and Advanced Biotechnologies, which specializes in the manufacturing of viral reagent products — chemical compounds used in scientific and medical research.

Random House, a book warehousing and distribution company, expanded its operations in Westminster, and Knorr Brake Company, a manufacturer of brakes, doors and HVAC systems for mass transit railways, chose to remain in Westminster.

"It's my opinion when you gain a large business like Fuchs or keep Knorr, it's extremely good for Carroll," said Mike McMullin, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

For Carroll County to develop a truly diverse and successful economy, the creation of small businesses is key, McMullin said.

With the creation of Carroll Business Path, which has partnered with the county's Department of Economic Development, entrepreneurs have been given a helping hand to make their dreams of owning their own business a reality, he said.

"The success of [our economic development efforts] going forward will allow [the county] to pay for our growing community," Howard said. "It won't show much now, but we've set the stage for economic growth in Carroll County."

Improved veteran services

In the past several years, the county has made an effort to increase and enhance the services it provides to Carroll County's 14,000 veterans, Howard said.

Several veterans in the community approached Howard with their concerns a few years ago, mainly pertaining to accessing hospitals outside of the county, he said. In response, Howard started a free veterans shuttle, which transports veterans and their caregivers to hospitals outside of Carroll County.

He then formed the Veterans Service Council, an organization dedicated to helping veterans access the services they deserve, he said.

Since its formation, the council has created a veterans website, which provides information about the services offered by the county, and has hired two part-time veteran services program coordinators to supplement the efforts of the state's Department of Veterans Affairs.

The coordinators work with veterans to explain what benefits are available to them, Howard said.

What the commissioners wish they could have accomplished

The commissioners kept busy during the last four years. Some of their decisions resulted in immediate changes to policies and procedures, a few set the stage for future progress and still others have been symbolic with little tangible results.

However, some of the commissioners said they wish they could have done more for the county.

Shoemaker said the commissioners could've focused more of their energy on capital projects, such as road repair and repaving. Though they invested more in roadway projects than many previous boards, he said, they had the opportunity to do more.

"We kicked the can down the road for the next board to deal with [capital projects]," Shoemaker said.

Part of the reason they didn't do more is due to the commissioners' decision to focus on state and federal issues, he said.

"Despite the good things we did, we got distracted quite a bit by tackling larger issues when we should have been taking care of pick-and-shovel issues that we were voted [into office] to deal with," Shoemaker said.

He also said the board's decision — even obsession — with lessening the county's debt hindered its efforts to make headway on capital projects.

Howard agreed with Shoemaker, saying with interest rates as low as they were, the board was a little overzealous in reducing the county's debt.

"It would've been nice to take on more [capital] projects," Howard said. "It's not a bad thing [that we reduced our debt], but we probably should've worked on more local projects."

Frazier said though the board made efforts to make Carroll County more attractive to businesses, it could've done more to encourage and grow economic development, such as lowering property taxes even further.

She also said she hoped to do more to streamline the often convoluted Bureau of Permits and Inspections. The county recently launched a new website for the bureau to make information more readily available and easier to access, but residents still have questions about the bureau's policies.

Roush, on the other hand, said board members were able to accomplish most of what they had promised when they ran for office.


"That doesn't mean we did everything we could or should have, but there isn't one particular thing that stands out," Roush said.

Taneytown Mayor James McCarron Jr. said he didn't have much problem with what the commissioners chose to do or how they did it.

"They did what they came to office to do," McCarron said. "They cut taxes and operated conservatively, and I'm all for that myself."

One of the board of commissioners' shortcomings was a lack of communication, he said. They failed to alert Taneytown of changes in the master plan before they were made, which he said is a requirement when the property is in municipal limits or within one mile of it.

A controversial land-use designation outside Taneytown city limits from agricultural to industrial created the most strife during the 60-day review process of the master plan, but the change was ultimately stripped from the plan after public backlash.

Dean Minnich, a former county commissioner, said the board has done about as well as expected. It was the first five-member board in Carroll County's history and was composed of four people with no commissioner experience — Frazier previously served as a commissioner from 1998 to 2002.

His most poignant criticism of the board was that some of them seemed more interested in pushing their own agenda rather than their constituents', and considered the commissioner seat as just one step on the ladder to higher political offices.

"My problem with most politicians is they set their eye on being more than what they are and start saying things to achieve goals that have no merit," Minnich said. "Some people care more about using the board as a springboard for their own popularity rather than actually achieving worthwhile goals."

Howard said the board focused primarily on short-term goals, but didn't consider the long-term effects of those decisions.

"We need a much more long-term view of the day-to-day decisions we make and how they impact the county," Howard said. "The ability to determine these effects will also determine the next board's legacy."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun