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Hyperactive commissioners need to up the Ritalin dosage

November 25, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Jim Kercheval, John Munson and Dori Nipps must be wondering if they will arrive in their new offices next month to find that the outgoing commissioners have changed the locks.

Can't accuse the lame duck commissioners of mailing in their last few weeks in office; they're conducting so much business, you wonder if there will be anything left for the new commissioners to do for about their first six or seven months in office.

Most notably this month, the commissioners hired Tim Troxell as EDC chief, (good) approved Manny Shaool's controversial Mt. Aetna housing project (inconclusive), committed $60,000 to a study of county salary scales (and the county has its own human resources department, why?) and threatened court action against the City of Hagerstown (awful).

Hiring Troxell was an excellent move with plenty of positive, long-term implications for Washington County - but since I'm a journalist, I am required by federal law to dismissively skip over the good news in a single sentence and spend the bulk of this work dwelling heavily on the potentially negative implications of the other three.

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Most of the folks I've talked to in the Mt. Aetna area have two objections to Shaool's development. First, they say there were led to believe the area would be built up with single-family homes - no high-density town houses, condos or apartments. Second, the roads are already horrendously overcrowded.

Indeed, what's to happen in the area when the new hospital is built? What's to happen when at least 500 new homes sprout up over the next decade or two, when the college continues to grow, when the Smithsburg-Hagerstown corridor continues to clog?

In 1998, the county floated Options A, B and C for an alternate Robinwood Drive. The public, including the cousin of a then-sitting county commissioner, objected. So we got Options D, E and F. The public didn't like those either. Then came Options G, H and finally I and the whole proposal got so convoluted that the project was shelved.

Because commissioners past and present couldn't pull the trigger, traffic has became nearly unbearable. "Robinwood would have helped that situation tremendously," one county official said this week. Now, we have two new major projects on the books, but the transportation outlook isn't much brighter than it was four years ago.

In fact, it seems that the only growth commissions past have managed to foster with any degree of aplomb is the growth of county government itself. There's never a problem providing for more government workers, more government buildings and, heaven help us, more government litigation.

On the first day they take office, the best thing the new Board of Commissioners could do is put an immediate end to this nonsense of suing the city over annexation.

If a private developer has an issue with city policy, then the developer ought to be the one to take it to court and shoulder the costs. Then it becomes a business decision whether the city's annexation requirements are so financially unfair that it's worth filing suit.

But even more costly than court fees for the county is the ill will it's generating with the city. The city already believes that it's all but impossible to deal with the top levels of county administration, and a suit has the potential to turn the relationship into a downright hostile situation.

And this will have a terribly negative impact on the aforementioned traffic situation, where the state, city and county will all have to work hand-in-hand to solve the congestion problems. It's quite conceivable that if the county hangs the city out to dry on annexation, the city might hang the county out to dry on transportation.

That's great for my purposes, but probably not so good for the hospital, the college and the people who live and who will be living in the Robinwood/Mt. Aetna Road communities.

Administrators will swamp the new commissioners in snake oil, trying to justify this fiasco. Newcomers Kercheval, Munson and Nipps already have a majority over the incumbents Snook and Wivell, who have remained passive while the staff has made them look like fools.

The newcomers should listen patiently to the staff's rap, then issue the following six words: "Drop the suit or you're fired."

And if they're still feeling uppity, they could instruct the staff to drop its wasteful $60,000 "study" of county salaries. On Nov. 13, Human Resources Director Alan Davis presented a very lucid and convincing argument for salary-structure reform.

Which begs the question, if we know what the problems are, why don't we go ahead and fix them instead of paying sixty grand to reaffirm what we've known all along?

Yes, when the guy who is operating the sewer plant is making the same as the guy who cuts the grass, there is a problem. But the county has personnel professionals; they should just do the job, instead of looking for an expensive, outside firm to provide political cover.

However, if the new commissioners do a little unsupervised snooping of their own among county workers, they may quickly discover that salary alone isn't the only reason Washington County is having trouble holding on to its employees.

All this is not to say that, overall, the Board of County Commissioners hasn't done a pretty decent job over the past four years. Unlike the State of Maryland, the commissioners are not handing down a wrecked budget for the new administration to clean up, the sewer debt is slowly but surely diminishing and the commissioners restored some of the dignity to the office that had been lost during the Masters golf junket days.

But lately there have been a few wobbles, and the new board would be wise to tighten down the nuts before the wheels come off and restore a sense of vision to the office that goes beyond a new administration building or the county courthouse.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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