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Off to new offices, county staff takes detour to the woodshed

January 08, 2001

Off to new offices, county staff takes detour to the woodshed



The Washington County Commissioners must be the only enterprise this side of the Pentagon that wouldn't be able to scrape together enough vacant office space in downtown Hagerstown.

They purchased an old supermarket building at the corner of Baltimore and Summit for $1.1 million, and all of a sudden the commissioner's staff is saying the building could be too small in as little as five years.

So where do they go from here, Sam's Club? Topflight Airpark? That way they could build office cubicles upward as well as sideways, la "Hollywood Squares."

There's no denying the county's current office space is cramped, and I don't believe too many people (although around here, who knows) would advocate firing a bunch of employees so county government would fit in its current digs.

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But to spill over into a supermarket and then project that that is going to be undersized five years hence? You like to see this kind of growth in a private company, but not in government.

Those of us with lives empty enough to care about such things can't help but notice Washington County's budget has ballooned by $30 million over the past five years.

When pressed about government expansion, commissioners answer, with a fair degree of validity, that the new money is going mostly to the school board.

But in light of needing more office space, protests that the county government isn't growing are like those of a man who claims he hasn't put on weight, then has to buy a new suit because he can no longer fasten his pants.

The commissioners don't need that new space because they're warehousing tuna. They need it for the things of government growth, people and machines. And, based on projections, the staff apparently doesn't see any end to the growth. (Although following a public reprimand, the staff was saying it might be enough space after all).

Passive commissions over the last couple decades have basically given staff members a blank check to add people and gadgets, as well as such items as a white-elephant sewer plant and a grandiose bridge to a dump.

Lone commissioners who would speak up, such as Ron Bowers (the later years) or Jim Wade, never could muster a majority. Commissioners such as Greg Snook, Lee Downey, John Shank and Ron Bowers (the earlier years) let the staff run with the ball and now we're paying the price.

Luckily, things seem to be changing. If the staff believed it could sell commissioners on the supermarket, then, foot in the door, win more space on down the road, they got a rude awakening from rubber-stamp-as-usual policies of the past.

Indeed, they got a public spanking for what appeared to be their attempt to force the Commissioners' hand.

"It is too damn bad we bought a building that was too small," said Commissioner John Schnebly. "We should let the people who recommended that sleep in their own beds."

Good for Schnebly, who has shown the toughness to discipline an untamed staff and convince his colleagues that he's right in gaining a majority of supportive votes.

Too many times the staff has gotten commissioners hooked on a project with a low introductory price, then jacked up the total once the county is committed and it's too late to turn back.

Look what's happened with airport runway expansion, which has been peddled as both a $38 million project and a $53 million project; or the landfill office/maintenance buildings, which were introduced at $450,000 and now stand at $850,000, or the sheriff's office, up to $1.5 million from an original $600,000.

Schnebly, and the rest of the Class of '98 - Bert Iseminger, Paul Swartz and Bill Wivell - will have taken a long stride toward shoring up the county if they can put an end to the little reindeer games staff has become accustomed to playing, whether it's overhyping a sewer project or slipping a $750,000 line item for YMCA construction into the budget without Commissioners' approval.

Already it's been a while since the staff has performed some public fiasco such as having a black man arrested for protesting on county property or wasting $100,000 on Baltimore attorneys to battle a county union that had no power to strike. So there is reason for hope.

As disasters go, the county annex troubles are small ones. And if they hit home the twin lessons of keeping a lid on government expansion, as well as keeping a lid on cagey staff members, this will be a disaster of worthwhile proportions.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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