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Wivell's plan underlines need to mediate city-county dispute

January 10, 2003

To its credit, the Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday declined to go into closed session to hear Washington County Commissioner William Wivell's proposal to end a city-county dispute without going to court. Given the many issues his proposal raises, Wivell's three-week deadline for action is adequate. But with a good mediator, his plan could be the framework for future cooperation.

Under Wivell's proposal, the city would give up its policy requiring those who want city utility service to annex their property. In return, Wivell said the county would drop its request for a Maryland Public Service Commission study of city rates for county customers in favor a jointly funded city/county rate study.

To address some councilmembers' concerns about how effective the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance is, Wivell said the county would agree to form a joint task force to develop a uniform policy for the city and county and any other municipalities which decide to join in.

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And then there's the money: Wivell's offer says that Washington County is willing to provide tax credits to help redevelop urban areas of the city, to adopt a new tax differential program and to pursue a central booking facility that both sides agree will save money and curb the waste of police officers' time.

Wivell's proposal also says the county is willing to start negotiations on a combined regional water and sewer facility.

Sorting out all these items in three weeks - especially when many involve only promises to study certain issues - will provide difficult. But if the county's lawsuit proceeds, the court is likely to rule only on the very narrow question of whether the city can demand annexation in return for utility service.

Given the distance between city and county positions and the unwillingness of the county board to agree to any mediation of the dispute, court action may be inevitable.

But if this goes to court, further cooperation will be difficult, because one side will win and one will lose. The best solution would be one that gives neither side all it seeks, but in which both get an agreement they can live with.

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