Downey leaving with feeling of accomplishment

November 30, 1998

DowneyBy SCOTT BUTKI / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

After serving a total of 20 years, Washington County Commissioner R. Lee Downey is leaving office, satisfied with the decisions he made and ready to let someone else take his place.

Downey, 56, served as a commissioner from 1974 to 1990 and from 1994 to 1998 but did not seek re-election this year. He is a real estate broker for Century 21 and a developer.

"I have been there 20 years. It is time for someone with different ideas and thoughts," said Downey, a Republican.

He is impressed with the new commissioners, who will be sworn in Tuesday. Only Gregory I. Snook, president of the commission, is returning to that office. Snook, a Republican, will be joined by Independent Bert L. Iseminger Jr., Republican William J. Wivell and Democrats Paul L. Swartz and John L. Schnebly.


"There is a good mix of individuals there," Downey said. Schnebly served on the Hagerstown City Council and Swartz was a teacher, so together they are familiar with the city and education issues, he said.

Iseminger, chairman of the Washington County Planning Commission until he resigns Tuesday, is familiar with planning issues. And Wivell, Downey noted, is an accountant. "It is good to have a number cruncher on the board," he said, adding that Snook, being an incumbent, is of course familiar with county issues.

Downey cited two main reasons for running for office originally: his interest in politics and his own family history.

His great-grandfather, Lewis, served as a Washington County commissioner in 1890. Later, his grandfather, Simon, and his father, Charles, also served as commissioners.

After Downey was elected, he decided he only wanted to serve for three four-year terms. However, his interest in making sure the county finished work on Eastern Boulevard prompted him to run successfully for a fourth term.

He retired from office in 1990, but since he was still full of energy and ideas, he returned to office in 1994. "I missed it somewhat," he admits.

When he decided to run again in 1994, he planned to serve just one more term, he said. There are no issues that he feels strongly enough about to try and remain a commissioner for another term, he said.

He was disappointed, though, that one project did not reach the commissioners before he left office: the revised county comprehensive plan.

The county has changed a great deal since the original zoning ordinance was passed in 1973 and it is past time to look at making changes, he said. The revised plan will reach the new commissioners in the first six months of 1999, he said.

When Downey returned as a commissioner in 1994, after his four-year absence, he did not realize the extent of the problems in the water and sewer department, he said. When he left office the department had been breaking even financially, he said.

When he returned to the board, he learned that the department had not raised rates between 1990 and 1993 and the Washington County Sanitary Commission had begun accumulating debt.

Ultimately, the commissioners decided they had to raise rates and pay off some of the debt using money from the general fund.

Raising rates and attending public meetings where they heard from citizens was not easy, he said.

"It was difficult. Whenever you affect people's pocketbooks or their property it gets the public's attention," he said.

The process is more efficient now under the Washington County Water and Sewer Advisory Committee instead of the independent sanitary commission, he said.

Overall, Downey said, dealing with the water and sewer debt issue was one of his low points as a commissioner. But in four or five years, people will say the commissioners did a good job addressing the problem, he said.

The commissioners should have done a better job explaining the decisions they were making, he said.

The new commissioners will need to pay careful attention to the issue, he said. They will probably need to continue making a 3- to 5-percent rate increase for the next few years, he said.

Downey listed several accomplishments he is proud of as a commissioner:

- He only missed four meetings during 20 years, even when that meant attending meetings while on vacation.

- He felt that he did a good job acting as a facilitator, trying to find a compromise that would please all of the commissioners.

- He is proud of the county's decision to spend money to improve the intersection of Halfway Boulevard and Hopewell Road and to extend Halfway toward Md. 63.

- The county reduced the amount of money spent on municipal bonds from about $12 million to about $6 million annually, he said.

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