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Another perspective on that public housing story

November 25, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

It's important to listen to other people, because you just might get another point of view. It's a simple truth, but one I keep learning again and again.

For instance, when several readers sent me copies of last Sunday's Washington Post story about how attractive Hagerstown's public housing has become to folks priced out of similar units in Montgomery County, my first reaction was, "That's no big news."

Last September when I interviewed Beth Stouffer, who runs the food bank at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Hagerstown's West End, she told me that they were seeing lots of new "customers," many from out of the area.

"Many have come from Frederick and Baltimore and they say the cost of living is lower here," she said.

However, I couldn't find any local officials who could confirm that such a migration was taking place, or provide firm numbers.

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Ted Shankle, the Hagerstown Housing Authority director quoted by the Post, told me then he'd gotten so much flak for placing one ad in a metro-area paper that he'd decided not to do it again. (In the Post, however, he sounds downright giddy about the prospect of drawing folks over South Mountain.)

But the big thing I missed about this story is what it says about the disconnect between local government agencies and the lack of a unified vision - on the part of any public official - for where the county is going.

The wider perspective I lacked was provided by a member of the editorial page advisory committee, a citizens group that meets monthly to critique our opinion pages and to suggest topics for my personal column.

In a Monday e-mail, he noted the irony in the fact that a housing agency in Hagerstown is encouraging residents from what may be the richest county in America to relocate to a much-less-affluent area.

Yes, we have the units to absorb many of those people, he said, but what about the impact on schools and other social services?

The two families quoted in the article brought a total of 10 children, he said, which the community must educate and care for in other ways. He noted that this is not a concern for Shankle, who is happy if he fills his units, but it is for county government and those who support it through their taxes.

The same sort of disconnect between what the community wants and what government doesn't do to provide it is evident, he said, in the county's stated desire for higher-wage jobs, even as it has embraced one warehouse operation after another.

To make matters worse, he said, the county's moratorium on large rural developments will likely prevent the construction of the sort of housing that would attract higher-income residents.

So the question raised here is: How do we get public officials and candidates for office to take a wider view, to see that what one agency or government does inevitably affects others?

One answer suggested by other members of the editorial advisory group is to run a slate for the county board. With five people broadcasting a more sophisticated message, it just might get through to voters.

The people in office who have a clue about these matters also need to do a better job of explaining what needs to be done to move the county forward.

Someone needs to say that if we want higher-paying jobs, the county and its residents have to embrace education, not only by funding it, but by telling children that it's essential.

Someone needs to say that if we accept a 600-unit housing development, we need to plan for at least that many additional cars on local roads, not to mention a couple of hundred new students in our school system.

And someone needs to say that if citizens don't pay attention, the only leaders we'll get will be those with familiar names and simple slogans but not the vision this county needs.

Finally, I have to accept the idea that when it comes to my commentary on area politicians' performance - or lack of same - there's a fine line between understanding the difficulty of elected officials' decisions and letting them off the hook too easily when they make a bad one.

In truth, I should have pushed Hagerstown officials to enact a rental-inspection program years ago, since I've known the city has had more than its share of fleabag apartments for at least 25 years.

And the difficulties of the county's fire/rescue companies have been clear since Terry Headlee's award-winning series of articles in 1989, yet real progress toward reform began only in the last year. I should have pushed harder for things to happen sooner.

One thing I have done right for the last five years is to listen to a group of citizens who remind me monthly that there are other thoughts and perspectives out there that ought to be shared with everyone. Today at least, I've done that.

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

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