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Despite headlines, city, county working together

March 24, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

If you've only skimmed the headlines during the past year, you may have gotten the impression that the Hagerstown and Washington County governments are locked in a constant battle. Judging from some of their quotes, city and county officials sometimes sound like exasperated parents dealing with misbehaving children. At other times they resemble a couple of street gangs, talking tough and grappling for turf and respect.

Yes there has been some court action over city policies the county opposes, but a group of city officials interviewed last week said that in many ways, the two governments are working well together on a range of items to save taxpayer dollars.

City officials hope those efforts will pave the way for other things, like the possible merger of some city and county departments. But they say that will require more trust between the two governments than exists now.

Mayor William Breichner said the biggest joint project facing the two governments - a central police booking facility - is being held up by the money squeeze the county faces.

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"The county's problem is not so much with the concept, but the sheriff indicated he's going to need additional personnel to run it," Breichner said.

Once the facility is built, it will enable officers who've made an arrest to process suspects quickly. Instead of spending hours on things like finger-printing - and racking up overtime - officers would be able to deliver suspects, then quickly return to the streets.

"It's becoming more critical every day. We're not going to let it drop," the mayor said.

For now, the two governments are pursuing other joint ventures, said Breichner and City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman.

After the city's purchasing agent retired, the city began working with the county's purchasing director to bid items in excess of $25,000. Breichner said the city also uses the county's insurance director to procure polices for the city.

Items purchased jointly, according to city officials, include heating fuel, street resurfacing, vehicles, personal computers and pool chemicals.

City Finance Director Al Martin said joint bidding cut the per-vehicle price of the Chevy Cavaliers the city bought for inspectors and others by more than $2,000.

Other savings efforts are in the works, Breichner said. Soon, he said, the city will get printing done at a shop at the Washington County Technical High School. The city also works with the Hagerstown Community College and the Washington County Free Library to get Internet service at a reduced price.

And so while it may seem city and county can't get along, city officials said most of the friction doesn't affect interaction between departments.

But the actual merger of city and county departments is not likely to happen soon, city officials said, because there are so many questions about how any merger would affect service to city residents.

Merging the one agency most often mentioned as a candidate - the city's Permits and Inspections Department - wouldn't actually save the city cash, city officials said, because it's not supported by tax dollars, but by the fees it generates.

"The main benefit would be one-stop shopping," Breichner said, for those who need city and county approvals. But he said the city hasn't gotten many complaints about the need to visit two separate agencies.

And now that the city is pressing ahead with a major revitalization effort in concert with the Greater Hagerstown Committee, Breichner said there's a concern among some staffers that city projects wouldn't receive the same prompt attention under a joint arrangement with the county.

City officials said the same concern exists about a possible merger of city and county police agencies. If the county were in control and dispersed city officers all over the county, then city residents accustomed to a higher level of service might complain, they said.

The process of building trust continues, Breichner said, with his monthly lunches with Commissioners' President Greg Snook, who he's asked to resume monthly meetings between the city council and the commissioners.

"I think we have to settle some of these issues out of court," Breichner said, but acknowledged that contention over the city policy that links provision of city sewer service with annexation is "the real kicker."

Once that's settled, the city and county might be able to develop the joint vision for local development that City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman feels is needed.

In the early 1970s, another Commissioners' President, Lem E. Kirk, broke an impasse over city/county sewer policy by sitting down with then-mayor Pat Paddack and hammering out a deal.

Kirk passed away 10 years ago, but there is still a need for his kind of wisdom, which acknowledged that unless everybody bends a little bit, nobody gets anywhere.

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