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County wins battle, but if city withers it loses the war

July 14, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

When the City of Hagerstown sold its lifeblood to the Washington County Commissioners this week in exchange for a couple of vague promises down the road, the primary intent was to bring peace to increasingly sour city-county relations.

It's a worthy goal. Whether the gambit will succeed is anyone's guess. Giving the bully your lunch money voluntarily could possibly make a friend out of him, but it can also target you as a soft touch at next day's noon.

The issue was simple enough: The city believes new developments just outside city lines that take advantage of Hagerstown's cheaper sewer and water services should have to pay for these services by annexing into the city and paying city tax.

As it stands, developers want the best of both worlds - cheaper city services and lower county taxes. That's a sweet arrangement for developers, but hardly fair to city residents who have to pay the full measure for the sewer and water service they receive.

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The county was fighting for and alongside big developers in court to block Hagerstown's proposed annexation policy that said "if you want our services, you have to become part of the city."

This is a crucial issue for Hagerstown, because if it cannot expand its tax base the city budget will continue to stagnate and so will plans to spend the money necessary to revitalize the downtown. Also, the state had threatened to pull a $650,000 utility grant if the two sides couldn't settle their differences.

Under the tentative agreement reached this week, the county would drop its two lawsuits against the city and the city's annexation policy technically remains in place, although huge tracts of land are exempted, greatly crippling the city's ability to grow.

It's a magnanimous act of good faith on the city's part, but it is also a dubious leap of faith to believe the County Commissioners, a majority of whom are completely under the thumb of County Administrator Rod Shoop (who guards control as if it were weapons-grade plutonium) will play fair in the future.

Already, the county has a track record of bleeding city taxpayers dry, along the following lines:

1. Hotel tax revenues were raised to pay for a major, city-revitalizing project. Instead, the county is keeping the revenue for itself (even from the city hotels) and using it to fund vote-buying, pork barrel projects throughout the county.

2. New development taxes passed this year will flow entirely into county hands - even the new development occurring inside city lines.

3. City residents are seeing millions of their property-tax dollars go toward paying down Washington County's staggering sewer debt - debt incurred building a system that city residents will never use.

4. The city believes it is getting lowballed by the county in its formula for dividing up property tax revenue.

Even so, when the city attempted to raise money of its own by expanding its boundaries, the county threw a tantrum and decided it would be a good use of tax dollars to take the city to court.

Understand, the city's annexation plans would not cost the county any revenue - it gets its money either way. In fact, the county would have saved money because it would not be as responsible for serving as many people. The only thing the county stood to lose was a little control.

And with control comes the ability to play favorites. True or not, the county's haphazard growth policies open it up to such allegations. The county passes a building moratorium, then exempts selected developers. The county quashes Don Bowman's trucking development on Interstate 81, but appears ready to approve Brad Fulton's trucking development on I-81.

Perhaps its just a matter of the County Commissioners having weak political knees, but to the community at large it looks like something worse. At the very least, it trashes the county's implied argument that its growth policies are somehow more equitable and competent than the city's.

Worse, by once again hamstringing the city's ability to collect its fair share of revenue, the county has dealt a serious blow to itself. Before the commissioners get too giddy over having once again smashed the city in the mouth and gotten away with its wallet, it should remember this: Counties are judged by their primary city. Anne Arundel County is judged by Annapolis, Frederick County is judged by Frederick City, Allegany County is judged by Cumberland.

If Washington County continues to bleed Hagerstown dry while providing nothing in return, the city will rot into a Section 8 pit, and the commissioners will be laughingstocks and the target of statewide derision.

Developers doubtless believe there is an important distinction between Washington County and Hagerstown officials, but the rest of the state and the rest of the world does not.

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