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Allegany County Commissioner Michael McKay believes western Maryland must change its reputation as the state’s “backyard” — a place to which people travel for recreation but not to live, work and do business.

That’s why Allegany’s Board of Commissioners recently agreed to join the commissioners of three other western Maryland counties in contributing $5,000 in public money each to hire lobbyists to advocate for the counties during the upcoming General Assembly session, he said.

Allegany’s commissioners, along with those from Frederick, Carroll and Washington counties, this week announced the formation of the group, the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition, the first such lobbying group the counties have formed. The group has hired lobbyists Bruce Bereano and William R. Miles.

The group will oppose proposed programs and legislation that its members believe will impose on western Maryland regulations, fees and taxes that would cripple the counties’ economies and long-term growth, or usurp the counties’ local authority on land-use issues, said McKay, who is president of the Allegany County Commissioners, and Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County Commissioners.

“We’re trying to make sure we increase our voice in Annapolis,” Young said.

The local boards are particularly concerned about the proposed PlanMaryland, which would coordinate the work of state agencies that deal with growth with the aim of creating a statewide “smart growth” approach to reduce sprawl, and possible legislation to regulate residential septic systems in Maryland.

The group purposely kept the word “western” out of its title, because its members hope the legislative bodies of counties on the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland will join the group, Young said.

Garrett County’s commissioners participated in initial talks on the formation of the group and are sympathetic to its aims, but decided not to contribute $5,000 to the cause, said Garrett Commissioner Gregan T. Crawford.

“We didn’t feel it was prudent to pay for a lobbyist when we have two very good legislators representing us,” he said, referring to Sen. George Edwards (R-Dist. 1), of Grantsville and Del. Wendell Beitzel (R-Dist. 1A) of Accident.

Young said the counties’ traditional practice of relying on their state legislative delegations to lobby for county interests hasn’t worked as well as needed.

He and McKay said the state’s urban and suburban jurisdictions have full-time county executives and county-funded Annapolis lobbyists, while the western Maryland counties have relied on part-time commissioners and no paid lobbyists.

Edwards, who represents Garrett and Allegany counties and a portion of Washington County, said he has “mixed feelings” about the coalition, but believes it could advance the counties’ interests.

“I think we have a good delegation; we accomplish a lot,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt to have another voice at the table.”

The state legislators don’t have a contract with Bereano; the county governments have hired him. Edwards said he would work with Bereano as he would any other lobbyist.

McKay said he does not agree with legislators who have portrayed some of the proposals coming from Annapolis as tantamount to a “war” on rural Maryland, adding that he is grateful for the tax dollars that come from the state’s larger jurisdictions into Allegany County. But he believes western Maryland must become more self-sufficient, he said.

“It’s about time that we solved our own problems here,” he said. “We have talent and resources. We just need to be able to band together so we can speak as one.”

Bereano said his main job for the group will be to oppose PlanMaryland and the septic system legislation and to flag other bills that could limit the counties’ ability to locally regulate land use and zoning.

He also will seek to introduce western Maryland officials to lawmakers from the state’s larger jurisdictions.

“I think it’s important for the western Maryland folks to know other legislators,” he said.

skelly@gazette.net