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We attract the rich and the poor, but do little for those in between

August 17, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Washington County's Statue of Liberty might read: "Give us your rich, your poor - but nothing in between." Wealthy commuters are attracted here by the rural atmosphere; poor people are being driven here because the cost of living to the east is beyond their means. At some point we may want to make some accommodations for the people in the middle.

Each workday, more than 15,000 folks drive to work in the Greater Hagerstown area from their homes in the five West Virginia and Pennsylvania counties that border Washington County, Md. In return, only 3,700 Washington Countians cross state lines to work elsewhere.

When those commuter data were released by the Census Bureau this spring, it was hailed as great news for Washington County, leading one Tri-State development official to label Hagerstown as the region's "commercial epicenter."

Well, yes and no.

At first blush, these statistics would indeed seem to indicate that the Greater Hagerstown area has plenty of jobs, not only for our own residents, but for a significant share of people from other states.

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But to put this a different way, a net 12,000 people who work in Washington County find it an undesirable or unaffordable place in which to live.

New Census figures show that while Berkeley County's growth rate is on fire, Washington County's population is increasing by only 1 percent a year. In other words, the Hagerstown Suns attract in a week or two about the same number of people who will move into Washington County in the next decade.

Of course that can and will change, but meantime all these numbers produce two uncomfortable conclusions: 1. The plethora of jobs Washington County is so proud of do not pay enough to buy the workers Washington County homes - which in June sold for $24,000 more than in Berkeley County and $46,000 more than in Franklin County, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

2. Government, local to state, is not a prospective Maryland homeowner's friend.

Washington County is in a unique position, geographically speaking. What state lawmakers to the east do not understand is this: Every Tree law that adds a hundred bucks to the cost of a housing lot hurts. Every emissions law that creates one more bureaucratic hassle and cost hurts. Every hike in automobile registration fees that takes a few more dollars out of your pocket hurts.

And by hurts, I mean the bureaucratic hoops, fees, restrictions and costs add up to the point that, with no skin off their respective noses, people find it easier, cheaper and simpler to skip into another state, to which they will pay the bulk of their taxes.

Frankly, it's amazing this isn't happening more often. A Washington County family can instantly increase its disposable income by $200 or more a month through lower taxes and fees and save another $200 a month off its mortgage - all for 20 extra minutes of drive time a day.

Housing costs are out of line with wages because of another geographical twist. Our proximity to the metropolitan area attracts commuters who earn more and can pay more for a home. That's good for our tax base, but it also drives up the demand for, and price of, homes.

So many mid-wage people have two options: Live in the City of Hagerstown or live out-of-state.

This is why it can't be stressed enough that the County Commissioners, with all their law suitery and their multiple, financial shortchangings of the city is effectively costing itself serious tax revenue.

Instead, the county ought to be doing everything in its power to promote and bolster the both the city's size and its viability through annexation and improving the housing stock that's already within the city. Enlarging the city puts more money into the city treasury for housing renovation programs. And renovated homes in a desirable downtown decreases the pressure to develop rural areas, saving the county money on services.

To that end, Hagerstown Councilwoman Penny Nigh may be off base when she says that three-fourths of those living in subsidized housing are bad people, but she has a point in the sense that Section 8 subsidies (which are luring poorer people from high-cost Maryland counties to the east) have a detrimental to the city's vibrancy.

Section 8 interferes with natural market forces that should be working to the city's benefit. As it stands, a landlord can simply reap a greater profit renting out an unimproved apartment through Section 8 than he can renting it to a non-subsidized, working family.

We're quick to blame the landlords for letting properties deteriorate, but much of the fault lies with state policy. When you peg a Section 8 rent higher than the going market rate for the same apartment in the private sector, where is the incentive to fix up the property and make it attractive to what Penny Nigh might call the "good people?"

Block after block after block, Hagerstown has a marvelous inventory of attractive residential architecture that, if renovated, would be a desirable and affordable housing option for people who currently find county housing costs too high and move, along with their taxes, to other states. That's why it's imperative to end the multiple state and local policies that are effectively driving the employed out of Washington County, while attracting the under- and unemployed in.

Think what it would do for our treasuries, as well as the viability of downtown, if just half of those 15,000 working expatriates could be encouraged to live in the city and county where they work.

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