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City problems are county's problems, too

June 22, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

This past April, Richard Phoebus stirred up a bit of a hornets' nest when he talked to me about a long-standing belief of his: That it makes sense to study a merger of the Hagerstown and Washington County governments.

To give me some background on this issue, Phoebus, the retired CEO of Home Federal Savings Bank, lent me a book entitled "Cities Without Suburbs," which looks at the problems that occur when cities don't relate well to the counties that surround them.

The book was not written by a planner, but by David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M. But like a lot of planners, Rusk uses a wide variety of studies and economic data to make his points. In the foreword, he describes the process of putting 150,000 pieces of information from 40 years' worth of U.S. Census data into his computer.

His conclusion - or the short version, anyway - is that cities and counties must work together to solve their problems and that doing so is easier with a consolidated government.

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Rusk says U.S. cities' problems - a concentration of poverty, among others - developed because in post World War II America, citizens no longer wanted the cheek-to-jowl, close-up lifestyle of the old cities.

That desire for elbow room spawned the suburbs, Rusk said, which for a time were bedroom communities for residents who commuted to work in the cities. But by the 1990s, Rusk said, many of the jobs had moved to the suburbs as well.

In his research, Rusk found that cities that prosper are those that are "elastic" and which can grow by annexing new territory. But older, high-density cities that have few places inside the municipal boundaries for new development tend to stagnate.

At this point, if you live in Washington County, you might be saying to yourself, "Who cares? I don't live in Hagerstown, so the city's problems are not my problems."

Not true, says Rusk. Cities that cannot grow actually increase the growth of the suburbs and the county's costs. Cities that cannot grow become saturated with low-income residents and all the problems that this entails.

Again, perhaps you don't care if people in Hagerstown make a lot less on average than people in Washington County. But consider this: Rusk cites a National League of Cities study which found that there's less job growth and fewer highly educated people in areas where there's a big difference between the annual incomes in the city and the county.

"Unable to tap the areas of greater economic growth (its suburbs) the city becomes increasingly reliant on state and federal aid," Rusk said.

The suburbs - in our case, the county - tend to be fragmented, he notes, with not only a county government, but a number of municipalities, each with separate agendas.

The result? Economic and racial segregation, Rusk says, adding that "rivalry among jurisdictions often inhibits the whole area's ability to respond to economic challenges."

Does that sound familiar? Consider that if the two largest local governments don't soon agree on a joint sewer agreement, they will lose a $650,000 state grant.

If they lose the grant, they will not have the funds to interconnect their systems, which would save each side money and forestall the day when the city will run out of capacity to serve new development.

State officials have said they will give the two extra time to reach an agreement, but this specific dispute has been going on for more than two years. And the city and the county have been fighting over sewer policy in general for more than 25 years. And their disputes have cost both governments millions that could have been spent for other public services.

Does anyone believe that downtown Hagerstown would be the economic basketcase it's become if there were one government? Instead, for the past 20 years, county government has all but ceded the problem to the city, which has only recently decided to devote an employee to the job on a full-time basis.

At the heart of his argument, Rusk is arguing that it is not possible for counties to ignore the problems of their largest cities, unless they want to face the consequences.

Those consequences include the creation of fewer jobs, in part because the work force isn't as well-educated as it needs to be for today's jobs. Hagerstown's boundaries aren't like a dam, holding its problems in, but like a sieve, through which the problems leak, diluting the county's strengths.

With so much at risk, you'd think that local officials would at least consider studying a possible solution. But the only one who's suggested that it's worth considering - Del. Bob McKee - got criticized for his trouble.

As I said when I first wrote about this issue in April, there is no one "right" way to merge governments. Some have chosen to leave their political structures intact and divide up the services each provides - the county does police while the city does sewer treatment, for example.

What we're doing now is not working, at least not well enough for anybody to point to it with pride. Where is the leadership, among the business community or the elected officials, to take a serious look at how we might do it better?

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