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One voice for merger study

July 11, 2003

Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis Metzner, one of those rare elected officials who's willing to re-examine traditional ways of doing things to see if they still make sense, this week floated an interesting idea. What if the city police department and the Washington County Sheriff's Department were merged into one metropolitan police agency?

The idea would require some research. And while that study is being done, why not look at which other local services or government functions might be merged?

In April, Richard Phoebus, a local business and community leader, proposed the idea of looking at a possible merger of Hagerstown and Washington County governments.

Phoebus is under no illusion that such a merger would be easy. In fact, in 2002, the North Carolina Political Review pointed out that of 100 city/county mergers proposed nationwide, only 30 took place, with just eight approved since 1980.

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But Phoebus said that even if it doesn't result in a merger, a study could yield information on ways that other jurisdictions have agreed to share the tasks involved in providing services.

In Charlotte, N.C., for example, voters rejected a full merger with the surrounding county, but approved a division of responsibilities.

Mecklinburg County handles stormwater management, building inspections and elections, while Charlotte provides police, public transit and animal control, among other services.

Could such arrangements work here? Probably not without a lot of negotiation. But considering that it's taken almost two years for the city and county to agree on a simple interconnection of their sewer systems, it makes sense to start talking now, or it's possible nothing will ever be accomplished.

Can local folks count on other elected officials being as open-minded and thoughtful as Councilman Metzner? For citizens' sakes, we have to hope so. Other areas have found ways to save money and streamline their operations by re-examining the idea that the way "it's always been done" is the only way.

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