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Shank wants to solve sewer debt

October 25, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

John S. Shank's re-election hopes may well come down to the substance behind his campaign slogan: "Not a Part of the Problem. A Part of the Solution."

The unusual motto is an unmistakable reference to a water and sewer debt that soared to more than $50 million during Shank's tenure as a Washington County Commissioner.

The twice-elected Republican's ability to survive on Nov. 3 will depend largely on how successful he is at convincing voters that the slogan is true.

Shank's contention is that he is not responsible for most of the debt because he was not on the board when the costly Conococheague Wastewater Treatment Plant was approved.

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But Shank, who was appointed in 1989 after Commissioner Martin L. "Marty" Snook died of a heart attack, did cast an important vote on the issue. On Jan. 2, 1990, he joined the other four commissioners in unanimously deciding to borrow more than $16.5 million for the project.

That money, combined with lower-than-expected growth this decade, contributed to the current debt.

The situation was compounded two years later by the commissioners' decision to build the Conococheague Industrial Pretreatment Facility, which also has lost millions of dollars.

Shank, 66, acknowledges his role in that decision.

"Looking back, I wouldn't have built it. But at that point, we were sold a bill of goods," Shank said. "We listened to our advisers."

But when it came to dealing with the problem, Sharpsburg Town Councilman Russell Weaver said Shank was willing in 1992 to take steps like assuming control of the Washington County Sanitary District and firing its executive director.

"When it was shown there was a problem, he is the one commissioner who took it seriously," said Weaver, who served on a citizens advisory group. "He's really the only one who backed us."

The water and sewer crisis had another effect on Shank: It almost convinced him not to run again.

Shank said he was dismayed at the tone of the criticism, which reached a fever pitch at a public hearing in 1996.

"Right before and right after that public hearing, I got about 50 calls a week," he said. "Regular as clockwork, Sunday at 12:30, somebody called for about two months."

Shank said he finally decided to seek re-election after about a dozen supporters urged him on.

"I am not a person to give up and walk away," he said. "If I have helped create a problem, I would like an opportunity to help solve that problem."

Although he had never faced the kind of animosity he stared down in 1996, Shank's political career has hardly been a cakewalk.

He finished sixth in 1982 and 1986 before winning appointment to the board in 1989.

For Shank, it was a lesson in hard work he learned as the third of four children of strict farming parents.

"We were out every morning at 5 o'clock, milking cows and cleaning the barn every day before school and the same when we got home," he said.

Farming responsibilities interrupted Shank's education. He said he went to Hagerstown Junior College for a year after high school, but left for 10 years to work on the farm before returning to school. He graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a history degree in 1964.

Shank, who was a substitute teacher in the Washington County school system for two years after graduation, bought his father's farm off Alternate U.S. 40 south of Funkstown.

Since the 1970s, Shank has dabbled in development. He bought land across Alternate U.S. 40 in 1977 with the intention of expanding his farm. In 1982, he built 36 houses, which form Rocky Spring Acres.

Shank said he also owns about 15 vacant lots off of Wagaman Road.

Shank said his farming experience gives him standing on agricultural issues. He has been a leading proponent of county efforts to preserve farmland and recently has advocated changing state-funded programs to put an emphasis on the highest-quality farms.

Shank's experience as a developer has left him skeptical of some efforts to slow down growth.

He opposes impact fees to pay for new development because he prefers the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which requires new development to meet minimum standards on roads, water and sewer systems and other utilities.

"It's doing the same thing impact fees are in other counties, only to a greater extent," he said.

However, Shank provided the lone dissenting vote when the commissioners adopted the ordinance in 1990. He said he voted against it because he was not sure how it would work. But after seeing it in action, he said it works well.

Shank has tried to cast himself as the education candidate this year, calling the issue his No. 1 priority.

"I've been consistently saying that," he said.

Shank has said he will consider tax hikes to improve education if the school system can demonstrate accountability for the new funding.

Sharon Chirgott, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, said members of the union expressed concerns about his record in office.

"They're very leery of people jumping on the education bandwagon in an election year. I'm not saying that's what John did, but that was what their impression was," she said. "Up until this past year, if he supported education, it wasn't that obvious."

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