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Commission candidates face full slate of pressing issues

January 08, 1998

Commission candidates face full slate of pressing issues

Former Potomac Edison executive Sue Tuckwell's entry into the race for Washington County Commissioner yesterday signals two important things. The first is that those candidates who are serious about this race need to get into it soon. The second is that citizens who are serious about wanting good leadership need to start thinking about the issues now.

We'll talk more about individual candidates as the campaign heats up, but here are the issues I feel need to be addressed by any serious candidate for county office. They include:

Land use. As they talked about county goals for 1998, Commissioners Jim Wade and John Shank had an interesting discussion about farmland preservation, with Wade saying that county residents don't want every farm to become a housing development. OK, said Shank, but somebody's got to pay the landowner for his development rights. Can't be done, Wade said, because it's unaffordable.

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Expensive yes, but what will be the cost of not preserving those farms? A loss of some of the quality of local life, certainly, but there'll also be the costs involved with school construction, road expansion and other services. The question to be answered is: How much are we willing to spend to keep some of the rural countryside that we have now? Deciding not to deal with this issue by hoping that bad things won't happen is not an acceptable answer, for candidates or citizens.

Water and sewer. This issue is related to land use, because the county's utility debt problems will only be addressed (in the long term) through growth. Hagerstown and Washington County, which have been fighting about sewer issues for at least the past 25 years, need to agree on a strategy to combine forces. The difficulty will be doing that without the political fallout that will come if a merger results in higher fees for those now on city systems.

Economic development. Washington County will get a certain number of warehouse/distribution type jobs because it's located at a rail hub and the crossroads of two interstate highways, but the jobless rate is low enough here now so that local officials can afford to be a little choosier about which firms they welcome in.

For many years, local parents who slaved to send their children to college have lamented that there are no jobs here for their educated offspring to come back to. At the same time the area gets slammed because it has a low percentage of residents with four-year degrees. It's time for a long-term commitment to finding the jobs that require such degrees.

In the short term, the county needs some manufacturers - a brewer or a soft-drink bottler, perhaps - which can use a great deal of sewer capacity so that county treatment facilities have a chance to break even.

Education. In honor of the approaching millennium, let's take the county board campaign to a higher level and have all serious candidates take a pledge not to stir up their blue-collar constituents over the fact that some people in high positions in the school system make a lot of money. There's a difference between demanding that highly paid people produce results and encouraging citizens to resent them for the size of their paychecks.

And while money isn't the only measure of a commitment to education, the hard truth is that because so many students are coming to school from families that don't prepare them to learn, the schools will have to do a lot of remedial work, unless, of course, we'd rather leave that job to the prisons or the welfare system.

Tourism. Creating a county and attractions to entertain visitors has two benefits. Not only do we draw in those who spend money and demand very little in return, but we also make a more pleasant place for ourselves. An attraction like Discovery Station - the planned interactive science museum for children - will not only attract tourists, it will be here for our own children. The same goes for the museums, restaurants and shops that cater to tourists; we get the benefit of having them here even as we share the cost of supporting them with out-of-town visitors. The catch is that elected officials will have to find funding and make such things a priority.

Vision. It's a rare candidate who sees the interconnections between issues. For example, hooking up hundreds of new homes to the county sewer system might relieve financial problems in that area, but what would it do to the school budget? The ability see beyond the next budget, to think about how what's done today will affect the county 20 years from now may be a candidate's most valuable quality.

Your turn. Have I missed anything important? If so, let me know by writing to Bob Maginnis, Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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