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Merge the city and county?

April 23, 2003

Asked what legislation he would propose to save budget-starved cities and towns from bankruptcy, Del. Bob McKee said he wasn't aware of any Washington County municipalities that are in such severe financial straits.

But then, after suggesting a number of possible financial-assistance measures, McKee tossed out a political bombshell to those attending Tuesday morning's post-legislative breakfast: How valuable and necessary is the City of Hagerstown today?

McKee was referring to the suggestion made recently by Richard Phoebus, a local business leader, that the city and county study a possible merger of the two governments. The question is relevant now because the city and county governments face the loss of a $650,000 state grant if they can't reach an agreement on city utility policy by June 30.

The two governments have negotiated for more than a year on a city policy that would require those outside the city limits who want city water and sewer service to agree to annex their property. Both sides have resisted the idea of mediation for a dispute that is just the latest chapter in a city/county struggle that's been going on for more than 30 years.

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Phoebus urged the two to study the possible benefits of a merger, saying that even if it does not happen, the study would unearth ways to cut costs and jointly provide services to citizens.

Pam Christoffel, who chaired Tuesday's event for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, asked other delegation members for their thoughts on the issue.

Del. Chris Shank said that he felt elected officials "owe it to our constituents to provide them with the most efficient form of government possible."

To that end, Shank said it might be time to consider a joint water/sewer authority and to get the two governments working on a shared vision of the future. State Sen. Don Munson agreed that a study of a joint water/sewer authority makes sense, but Del. Richard Weldon warned of the "unintended consequences" of eliminating Hagerstown.

After the meeting, Weldon said he felt that because Washington County is basically rural and the city is a densely populated urban area, the county's elected leaders might be less responsive to the needs of city residents.

Considering all the time, energy and money wasted in city/county wrangling, the merger issue begs for a study. One possible outcome is that the city would be enlarged rather than eliminated, creating one great big municipality. If you missed my April 13 column with Phoebus, get a copy by writing to Merger Column, Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741, or e-mail me at bobm@herald-mail.com.

I'll write about this issue periodically in the coming months.

Discuss this issue




And speaking of wrangles that seem to go on forever, Hagerstown's merchants are still struggling to get some help from a city government that seems to regard them as an annoyance rather than an asset, according to Peggy Cushwa, owner of Maggie's Hang-Ups on North Potomac Street.

Last Christmas, Cushwa had talked about reviving the Downtown Retailers Bureau, but said this week that illnesses in her family and the demands of running her own business have made that impossible.

Cushwa and other North Potomac Street merchants have organized as the Uptown Shoppes and their ads include: Maggie's Hang-Ups, Figurehead II, Basketful of Gifts, L&L Clothing, the Gourmet Goat, Bogard's and P.T. Designs II.

Cushwa and other merchants have organized a petition opposing the increase in parking meter raises from 25 cents to 50 cents an hour. She was offended, she said, by Mayor William Breichner's comment that some people might not understand what they were signing.

"They say they want us to go along with their plans to rejuvenate downtown, but then they treat us like a thorn in their paw," Cushwa said.

Deborah Everhart, the city's economic development specialist, disputed the contention that city officials haven't been supportive of downtown.

She noted that city officials always do a ribbon-cutting for a new business and run advertisements on WHAG-TV every quarter touting downtown attractions.

City government also holds meetings periodically with the merchants, to allow them to brainstorm and make suggestions.

"This mayor and council are very dedicated to doing whatever they can for downtown," she said.

When the council was discussing raising the price of parking meters, Everhart said there was also discussion of a rebate program of some sort to help merchants out.

There is already a program that allows merchants to buy half-price parking-deck tickets to give to their customers, Everhart said.

Everhart acknowledged that there have been some disruption downtown due to street-improvement projects. That's a by-product of any improvement effort, she said.

The mayor and council may be dedicated to downtown retail, but it's like me being dedicated to car repair. I know I want it done right, but don't have a clue as to how I'd do it myself. I suggest city officials defer to those who do know retail and hold off on increasing the parking-meter rates, at least until downtown business activity starts to pick up.

Discuss parking fee increases here

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