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Coming council will have heavy agenda

January 04, 2001

Coming council will have heavy agenda



The filing deadline for the next Hagerstown city election is now less than a month away and by May there could be a whole new set of leaders in City Hall. It's unlikely, but possible.

But whether the crew that takes office in May is a group of veterans, a pack of rookies or a combination of the two, the next group of city leaders faces a set of issues that it would be irresponsible to ignore, including:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> The drug problem. Given the city's location at the intersection of two interstate highways, it's no surprise that drug dealers find this area attaractive, since the prices they can obtain are higher here, not to mention that they're less likely to get shot. And, according to an official of the narcotiocs task force, there are a number of local people who are willing to shelter dealers for cash or drugs.

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Will there ever be enough police? Probably not, but the next council has to look at whether the city force is being overwhelmed, and needs to add officers. It must also look at related issues like the Hagerstown Board of Public Safety's proposal for a central booking facility, which it says would keep more officers on the street. And there's the issue of inmates who've completed their sentences at the state prison complex south of the city staying here, even though they may have no local ties.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> In an April 2000 interview, HPD Chief Arthur Smith said that one tool to fight drug dealers was the nuisance abatement law, under which owners of problem properties can be cited, or in the case of uncooperative owners, actually lose control of their properties.

The Washington County State's Attorney's office has bought into this, but the council really hasn't. A program for the periodic inspection of rental properties has gone nowhere, even though it would encourage owners of fleabag properties to be more selective in who they rent to, or to sell to someone who would.

For the 25 years I've been here, city government has always tip-toed around the big property owners, fearing that they would tie the city up in court, or worse. And there is good reason to proceed cautiously.

Faced with tough enforcement in the past, one large property owner boarded up a number of his buildings. And no one who's been in Hagerstgown for awhile will forget what happened when the owner of a building on Public Square was told to fix it up or tear it down.

The demolition crews came in immediately, leaving an ugly mess, some of which had to be cleaned up at city expense. The site, known as the "hole in the square" remained empty for years, until Kurt Cushwa filled it with the Clock Building.

So caution is called for, but for the city government to do nothing because it fears what might happen will only lead to a drop in the value of the city's tax base. When dealing with landlords, the city council needs to get off its knees.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Dennis Frye and the Antietam Creek Coalition have proposed a National Civil War Museum that would require tearing down half a block of buildings on Antietam Street and the construction of a multi-story parking deck. For years I've written about the need to capitalize on the area's Civil War heritage, but a city that can't find the political will to fund a new minor league baseball stadium for $15 million isn't going to do Frye's project unless there's some signficant private money raised first.

The next council needs to look back at a report done for the state in 1989, which called for construction of a "first stop" center for Civil War tourism, which would give visitors an overview of what happened in the region. Such a center wouldn't cost $50 million, but it would make Hagerstown the place to go for people who weren't sure which bit of history they want to see first.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> In connection with that, the city needs a marketing campaign that will sell people in the metro areas on the virtues of living in Hagerstown and commuting to Washington, D.C., via the MARC train that will begin stopping in Frederick in 2001. People with an interest in city living and money to invest can revitalize the downtown.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Also, the next council needs to look at how to encourage development without an "anything goes" policy. Last May, Mayor Robert Bruchey II said that the needs of elderly city residents on fixed incomes argued in favor of doing whatever was possible to increase the tax base. I suggest that needs of the elderly will be best served in the long-term by holding out for attractive, orderly development that doesn't overload the roads' ability to deal with them.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Finally, the next council needs to work on an improved relationship with the county's delegation to the General Assembly. Dealing with the delegation isn't like going grocery shopping, where you can take your business to another chain if you're not satisifed.

Until current lawmakers retire or are defeated, they've got an exclusive franchise on the pipeline to Annapolis. The sooner city government learns that asking for help will get more results than demands for action, the better off all citizens will be.

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

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