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'Good faith' and your tax dollars

July 20, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

There's good news and bad news about the $45,000 in legal fees the Washington County Commissioners have incurred so far in their battles with the City of Hagerstown over sewer and annexation policy.

The good news is that it isn't the worst such use of county taxpayers' money. That would have to be the $54,400 spent for a Baltimore law firm's services in the mid-1990s when a previous county board tried to decertify the union representing roads, transportation and landfill workers.

Not only didn't that attempt succeed, but because the commissioners tried to do it during the Maryland General Assembly session, the county's own state legislators slapped the commissioners down, passing a law mandating collective bargaining.

Now the bad news: On the current dispute with the City of Hagerstown, the meter is still running, even though two weeks ago the mayor and council agreed to endorse a draft of a settlement. Additional costs are expected, according to County Attorney Richard Douglas.

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But the worst news of all is that none of this was necessary. I beg to differ with County Administrator Rod Shoop, who said that the county "made every effort to resolve these issues through negotiations in good faith with the city..."

Good faith? Negotiations with the city were under way when the county government decided to file suit. And the previous and current boards both rejected suggestions, made publicly and privately, that they seek help to mediate the dispute.

There were local civic and business leaders who would have helped, because I talked to them and to elected officials on both sides about doing just that. But those potential mediators didn't want to push their way into a situation where their help wasn't wanted. And the county board didn't want their help.

The last group of commissioners deserves more blame than the current one. Frustrated that they'd been unable to bend the council to their will, they decided to go forward with the lawsuit during their last days in office, commiting their successors to a fight they weren't sure they could trust them to take up otherwise.

Good faith? They didn't even have faith in the people's elected representatives to make the right choice.

Not that people didn't try to persuade the new commissioners to try the path of peace. At their swearing-in ceremony, Circuit Court Judge Fred C. Wright took the unusual step of urging the new board to govern in the spirit of cooperation instead of blame.

The new commissioners expressed the hope that they could settle the matter without going to court, with Commissioners Doris Nipps and John Munson both saying they would "try to be good neighbors."

Instead, the new commissioners decided it was going to be a litigious day in the neighborhood and Judge Wright's call for the commissioners to be good examples was soon forgotten.

The legal action proceeded, not because it was necessary, but because it was a useful hammer to force the city's negotiators to see things the county's way.

Do city officials bear any responsibility here? Yes. Several new councilmembers came into office with big chips on their shoulders, believing that county government would take advantage of the city whenever it could.

That attitude undermined a working relationship developed by Commissioner John Schenebly, a former city councilman, and Mayor Bill Breichner. And it held up agreement on a sewer interconnection agreement that could have cost both governments a $650,000 state grant.

But two weeks ago the city council agreed - some members reluctantly - to give the county almost all of what it wanted on annexation and sewer policy, in exchange for some vague promises to study issues of mutual interest.

And consider what the city government hasn't done:

n It hasn't challenged the transfer of millions of dollars from the county's general fund - much of which comes from city taxpayers - to subsidize sewer rates for customers in the county. This is true despite the county's decision to move ahead with its challenge to a city policy that charges more for city sewer service to those outside the city limits.

n It hasn't seriously challenged the county's distribution of hotel/motel or excise tax revenue, though some of the activities that generate those taxes take place in the city.

n It hasn't given up on the idea that both governments can work together for the mutual benefit of the citizens. If it had, the council wouldn't have agreed to a settlement in which the county gets something of real value in exchange for ambigious pledges to work on studies that could yield nothing.

With government budgets in the millions, the money spent on this dispute isn't much. But it is enough to hire a couple of teachers or restore some of those cuts county government made to nonprofits this year.

The next time county officials tell you what they can't afford, remind them that if they hadn't wasted money - your money - on this dispute, maybe they could have done something better with it.

Good faith? Give me a break.

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