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Hagerstown's city election: Why is it so quiet out there?

February 22, 2001

Hagerstown's city election: Why is it so quiet out there?



Since the Jan. 26 filing deadline for the 2001 Hagerstown elections, there has been just one political event and two letters to the editor related to the election. With the March primary less than a month away, I have to ask: Why has it been so quiet?

Probably because there's no one issue that really energizes voters. The council has not raised the property tax rate for the last two years, and the supporters of a new minor league baseball stadium have wisely backed off their effort, at least for the moment.

And though there have been controversies - the city's annexation of a Mt. Aetna Road housing development and the proposal to site a new Wal-Mart SuperStore on the east side of Hagerstown, most of the people upset about those things can't vote in the city elections.

But the quiet surrounding this election may just be the calm before the storm, and voters would do well to pay attention now, for several reasons, including:

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- City property tax revenues are flat and will continue to be, because the city has a stock of aging buildings that aren't increasing in value. Property taxes are the city's main revenue source and with the fire department asking for more resources (and the police likely to do so within the year), more money will be needed.

That will be true even if the county's General Assembly doesn't do what it did for the Boonsboro fire company's Rohrersville substation and mandate some money for Community Rescue Service.

Talk of a city-run ambulance service is only a delaying tactic. I've seen the financial analysis done by the comptroller of Cumberland, which set up its own rescue squad after other companies couldn't do the job. The bill was $1 million a year, even after billing for some transports, much more than the $400,000 CRS is seeking. Even an agreement to give CRS half that much will send the city tax rate up.

- One of the city's best hopes of raising revenues quickly is by annexing property on the edge of the city. Whether it is done in an orderly fashion that enhances - or at least preserves the quality of life - will be up to the next council. If the council approaches annexation in a desperate scramble for revenue, they will snarl traffic and ruin what charm the city still has.

- Another potential area for cutting costs is by merging city and county services, something that's been talked about a lot over the years, but which hasn't yielded much, at least until this year's historic plan to interconnect city and county sewer systems.

He hasn't said it and I suspect that he won't because he would rather lose the election than be disagreeable, but Councilman Bill Breichner probably declared for mayor because he feels his low-key, gentlemanly manner has a better chance of moving the city toward such agreements than incumbent Mayor Robert Bruchey's sometimes confrontational tactics.

And here's something city and county officials know, but haven't talked much about: Any merger of services is likely to involve the county paying the city to take over certain areas of responsibility.

Why? Because most city departments are unionized, and it will be easier to phase out county employees with no union protections - and no ability to "bump" others with less seniority.

- A longer-term approach to revenue enhancement is for the city government to encourage others to do as Ted and Vicki Bodnar of Neighborhoods First fame have done: Buy properties in the heart of downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods and renovate them.

In my column last Sunday, I noted that impact fees are going up in Frederick County, where real estate prices have always been higher than they are here. When the MARC commuter train arrives there this year, I'm convinced many will realize they can get off the train, ride over the mountain and cut their housing costs substantially.

This could be a lovely wedding if, of course, the city is ready for people who want municipal amenities - noise control, police protection and a property code that's enforced even when nobody complains - in return for paying city taxes.

So who are the people who are running? The Washington County Landlord and Property Owners Association held a forum on Feb. 7, but as of now, there's no other chance I'm aware of for the voters to see the candidates in action - preferably with a re-broadcast on cable TV - before the March 13 city primary.

Fortunately, The Herald-Mail news department has sent all the candidates questionnaires and will be publishing their responses fairly soon. It will not be the same as watching them in action, but it will provide much information.

Letters related to the candidates or the election are welcome, but please remember that we publish no unsigned letters, or those that use "pen names." Nor do we allow letter-writers to personally abuse those that they disagree with. A candidate may have a stupid idea, but that doesn't mean he or she is stupid or that the price of being courageous enough to run for office should be enduring public abuse.

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

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