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Bowers - retreat isn't part of his strategy

February 24, 1997

On Sunday, Feb. 9, The Herald-Mail printed my column entitled "Bowers needs more than an enemies list," detailing the struggles of Washington County Commissioner Ron Bowers with the Washington County school board, Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager and the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

The column's message was that if Bowers is running for re-election (and it certainly seems that he is), he needs to do more than say that other people are wrong. To win again, he has to show us how to put things right, especially in the areas of education, economic development and water/sewer.

Earlier this week, Bowers spend two hours with me. Part of that interview - his call for a summit between local business and labor leaders that would be mediated by Maryland Labor Secretary Gene Conti, was printed Feb. 20. What follows is the rest.

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The top concern is the county's multi-million-dollar water and sewer debt, which was accumulated after the county built the Conococheague treatment plant, then failed to market its capacity or raise rates in a timely manner. Bowers and some members of the county board feel that a partial answer to this problem is a a cooperative arrangement with the City of Hagerstown, which has so far resisted a variety of county pleas, including a request to join in a regional sewer authority.

Mayor Sager's reply to most of these overtures has been, "Put it in writing." According to Bowers, it already is in writing, in the form of something called BCM plan, done five years ago at a cost of $170,000. Bowers says the simple version of what it recommends is that the city take and treat everything east of Interstate 81, leaving the county with everything to the west.

But, Bowers said, Sager won't agree to implement the plan, an action that Bowers says is part of city tradition.

"At every crucial juncture of history, the city has turned its back on the county," Bower said.

Sager, it's no surprise, has a different view.

Bowers' explanation of the BCM plan is true, but a "great oversimplification." And the division of territory the plan talked about was envisioned to take place in 15 or 20 years, not now, Sager said.

However, Sager said, he has asked staff to review the BCM study, so that he can make another report to the county commissioners. At that time, he may renew the city's previous offers to discuss anything but a regional authority, to do maitenance work on the county system and to help the county implement a variety of revenue-producing options.

One I hadn't heard before is a plan to levy a surcharge on "lots of record" within sewer-service areas as compensation for reserving capacity for later development.

In other words, if you've got plans to build a housing development and have taken the lots through the permit process, there would be a charge for maintaining enough sewer to hook up your homes after you build them. Considering how many lots were rushed to approval in the mid-1980s in fear of new restrictions under the state's 2020 plan, this might be quite a money-maker.

Though the county didn't respond to the last batch of suggestions, Sager said, "I'll be happy to take a fresh look at the BCM study."

On the school system, my Feb. 9 column said Bowers' investigation of financial irregularities there had turned up no "smoking gun." Bowers says he's already spent two-and-a-half hours a Herald-Mail editor and reporter to detail what he found. I can't say what turned up, because I wasn't in on that session, but Bowers says there's more public proof the school system isn't doing its job.

The November 1996 consultant's report done on Fort Ritchie base reuse, done by Deloitte & Touche Fantus, gives the local school system low marks.

The report says that education locally is a "mixed picture," with Hagerstown Junior College getting high marks while "the public school system's performance, at least as measured statistically, will not be attractive to many potential employees and their families with college-bound children."

Part of the problem, the report says, is the relatively low aspirations of many young people in families in the community, "who do not demand a better school system or more educational opportunities."

Tom Berry, the school board member defeated in the last election, saw the same thing - education was not strongly valued by many here, for reasons he didn't understand. Whatever the reason, Bowers' prescription is a change of superintedents, something he expects to happen before the contract of the current incumbent, Wayne Gersen, has expired.

Bowers hasn't announced for the next election yet, but his statements aren't those of a man contemplating retirement. He may not win, but if he loses, it won't be by default.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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