Standard & Poor's, the New York-based bond rating agency, has upgraded St. Mary's County's rating from A1 to AA--a credit rating change that is expected to save the county about $500,000 in interest payments.

The change is the first significant rating upgrade for the county since 1985. The county went up one minor grade in 1997. Now, St. Mary's bonds are rated the same as those of Calvert and Charles counties, allowing the county to borrow money in the bond market at a lower interest rate.

The bond rating by Moody's Investor Services Inc., the other agency, did not change.

"I am delighted with the rate increase from S&P," said Board of Commissioners President Julie B. Randall (D-At Large).

"Moody's stated requirement of economic diversity to achieve a rate increase adds confirmation to this board's priority of diversifying our economic base. We have already begun this initiative through attention to tourism," Randall said.

This summer, the commissioners approved a hotel/motel tax, a move that is expected to generate at least $300,000 in annual revenues. The money will be used to promote tourism and develop new businesses less reliant on the Navy and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Calvert Adds to Preservation Effort

Calvert County commissioners agreed on a plan Tuesday under which they will be able to add nearly 10,000 acres of open space to the Agricultural Preservation Program before the end of their terms.

Board members voted 4 to 1 to adopt a scaled-down version of a "leveraging" plan discussed earlier this month. Under the new 24-year plan, farmers could sell the county the development rights to their property, receiving a lump-sum payment up front or a tax-free interest payment for 15 years, with a lump-sum payment to be collected after that period. Only Commissioner Patrick M. Buehler (D-St. Leonard) opposed the plan, saying funding for it would pinch the county's resources for education and that he wanted to spend more time examining options. Other commissioners said the timing of the decision was crucial because board members are scheduled to meet with the preservation board this morning.

If enough farmers agree to the plan, 9,443 acres of open space could be purchased and retired by 2003, according to a report presented to the commissioners. That's more than one-third of the county's ultimate goal to preserve 28,000 acres by 2026. The move also will prevent the building of 1,900 new homes, according to the report.

Commissioner David F. Hale (R-Owings) said he hopes to win landowners' trust with the plan in order to lock up as many development rights as possible at today's prices.

The program will be funded mainly through state Rural Legacy money and a recently increased recordation fee, which is expected to bring about $1.5 million to the county each year. In addition, the state agricultural program will fund about $1 million a year. Total cost for the 24-year plan is $20.5 million.

Waldorf Teen Joins in Youth Forum

A Waldorf teenager was one of 350 students from across the nation who participated in a congressional conference on youth violence this week.

Aaron Merki, a junior at McDonough High School, was selected by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to take part in the event, held Tuesday and Wednesday. It was organized by House Democratic leaders to develop action plans to prevent youth violence. The teenagers participated in workshops and discussion sessions that culminated with the presentation of a resolution on youth violence to House and Senate leaders.

Hoyer also named students from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties to attend the conference.

Farm Relief Lacking, Sarbanes Says

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), who forged a coalition of senators from eastern states to back direct federal aid to farmers hit by this year's drought here and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, ended up voting against the agriculture appropriations passed last week in the Senate.

Sarbanes said farmers need more than the low-interest loans currently available. "When you confront the kind of situation we now have where our farmers have been hit with a double whammy--that of low commodity prices and our severe drought problems--the low-interest loans simply won't work in a situation like this," Sarbanes said in a speech on the Senate floor.

The agriculture spending bill passed, 74-26, and awaits President Clinton's signature. The state receiving the most overall benefits under the measure is Iowa, the Midwestern farm state that also happens to be the site of party caucuses that are the first test in next year's presidential primaries.