Merge city and county?

Study of idea won't hurt and may yield much good

Study of idea won't hurt and may yield much good

April 28, 2003

We weren't surprised, but we were still disappointed by some local officials' negative reactions to a proposal to study a merger of the Hagerstown and Washington County governments. While a study might not lead to a merger, it would certainly uncover ways in which the two governments could work together to save taxpayers' money.

The idea of a merger was raised most recently by Washington County business leader Richard Phoebus, but the local Chamber of Commerce discussed the idea in detail as far back as 1969.

For at least that long, the issues have been the same: Sewer policy, economic development and taxation. Now the two governments face a fast-approaching deadline to resolve a dispute over land-use policy or lose a $650,000 state grant to help the two interconnect their sewer systems.

Both sides have resisted mediation, preferring to let the court resolve the issue. The only problem with that approach is that the trial is set for September and the state's deadline for reaching an agreement is June 30.


At the heart of a dispute is Hagerstown's plan to force those outside its boundaries who want city water and sewer service to annex their land into the city, providing new tax revenue for the cash-starved municipality.

County government opposes such a policy, saying that in the past the city accepted grants that bind it to providing sewer service to the region, whether or not the property is inside the city limits.

That's how this dance has gone for the past two years, despite gentle nudges from state officials, who now seem ready to pull the plug on a six-figure grant that won't be easily replaced in this tight economy. Somehow, somewhere, there's got to be a better way.

A merger or even a merger study won't yield any benefits in time to save the grant, but it may show local officials that there's an advantage to working together, even if it's not as a merged governmental organization.

And so we disagree with Mayor William Breichner when he says he doesn't believe that anyone could expect the city and county to agree on how to merge when they can't agree on other simpler issues.

If previous city officials had taken that stance, they never would have talked with county officials about tax differential, which now brings the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

If past city officials had been unwilling to consider changes in the way they did business, they never would have appointed a city administrator, a post Breichner held at one time.

Councilmen Linn Hendershot and Kristin Aleshire also oppose a merger, saying that while a debate is healthy, the city can more efficiently deliver services.

Is that really true? Without a study, who can say for sure whether some city out there hasn't found a way to do a better job by combining forces with its home county?

The citizens of Hagerstown should push their elected officials to study a merger for one simple reason: If city residents only paid county taxes, their total tax bill would drop.

Washington County residents who live outside the city should push their elected officials to study a merger because if the long-term financial woes of the city aren't addressed, Hagerstown could declare bankruptcy and turn in its charter, forcing the county to take over all those city services.

Like the negotiations on tax differential, changing how local government works will take years. But refusing to look at how other governments around the U.S. have handled their problems would be irresponsible.

We do agree with Commissioner William Wivell, who said that money shouldn't be spent to study this issue. Consultants' reports are too easily dismissed by elected officials. A group of prominent citizens, whose findings would be harder to ignore, should explore the issue. Those who oppose such a study will expose themselves as foes of progress who only wish to protect their own political power.

What is your view on combining city and county governments?

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