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For general election, voters must demand more

September 16, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

This past Tuesday, Washington County voters beat the record they set in the 1998 primary. Instead of that year's 30.5 percent turnout, this year it was 23 percent. This despite despite all the whooping and hollering about the need to control growth and the outrage expressed over how much the Washington County Commissioners paid their former Economic Development Director in a severance package.

My first thought was that perhaps the only ones voting were the people who made the most noise, but how does that explain the victory of Herb Hardin? In July he told The Herald-Mail that growth was good for the county and that building larger houses, rather than one- or two-bedroom models, was the key to economic prosperity. And consider the fact that former Hagerstown Community College basketball coach Jim Brown topped the Democratic primary list, despite saying next to nothing about what he would do.

When I saw that Brown's back-page ad contained the slogan, "The Man With A Plan," it reminded me of the late President Richard Nixon, who told voters he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War. If Brown has a plan other than the vague outline he's offered so far, he needs to reveal it.

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If he doesn't, and voters elect him anyway just because he's well-known, they shouldn't be surprised by whatever happens. I've got relatives I've known all my life, but I wouldn't give them a blank check without a lot of talking about what they'd do with it.

I don't really want to pick on Brown, because unlike some of the others who made it through, I have the sense that he knows a how to read a budget and about how to work with people.

No, it's clear Tuesday's primary vote was about name recognition, with almost every victor either an incumbent or well-known in some other way. Constance Cramer the only unknown to get out of the primary. Her growth-control message was much the same as that of Kurt Redenbo, who might have won had his last name been Shank or Poffenberger.

Picking the familiar may be comforting, but I have to hope voters demand more of the candidates in the next couple of months, because the next county board faces a host of tough issues.

"Controlling growth" is the buzzword of the year, but not many have said how they'd fund it, although incumbent Bill Wivell has at least been honest enough to admit that there will be a cost. What no one has yet told voters is that there will be a cost even if no controls are enacted, because existing taxpayers will get stuck paying for the cost of new development.

That's because previous county boards failed to follow through with implementing impact fees and the delegation denied the county board's request for a transfer tax.

As a result, the first wave of developers won't have to pay their fare share of the cost of the new services their developments will require. Because of that and the state's budget crunch, which will mean reduced state aid to Maryland's counties, look for a local tax hike in 2003.

And then there's the fire/rescue issue. After the county government in the early 1980s failed to deal with the issue of the shrinking pool of volunteers, some fire/rescue companies started billing through insurance and hiring their own paid people, to cover the daytime hours when free help is hard to find.

But for companies like Community Rescue Service, which find they're doing more transports for people who don't have insurance, the crunch is intensifying, particularly after the shutdown of the local trauma center.

The candidates who say this issue needs more study either haven't been paying attention or don't want to tell the truth: The system needs more money. Consolidation and combined purchasing will help some, but not enough.

Joining forces and working smarter could help both Washington County and Hagerstown save money, as it has in Cumberland, where something called "workplace re-engineering" has cross-trained employees and reduced the government's work force through attrition. County boards have been talking about this since the late Marty Snook was board president, but the time may finally have come when saving money is a higher priority than preserving turf.

Another term bandied about by many is "better-paying jobs." It's hard to find those without someone to lead the search and a commitment to go after them, but the current board is unsure it needs an Economic Development Director. Now, when companies in places like Fairfax, Va. and Montgomery County, Md., need to cut some costs, someone should be trying to sell them on this area.

A final warning to voters; Expressing concern about an issue is not the same as proposing a solution. Saying that we need better jobs and a safer community is easy. What voters need is candidates who'll tell them how those issues can be addressed.

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

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