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Annexation case should be last city/county lawsuit

November 17, 2003

After spending more than $150,000 of taxpayers' money suing each other over a matter that should have been resolved through negotiation, Hagerstown and Washington County have now received Judge Fred Thayer's ruling on the annexation lawsuit.

The short version of the judge's ruling is as follows: The city cannot require annexation before providing water and sewer to an area of the county it required to serve under a 1997 agreement.

But outside that area, the judge ruled, the city is free to require annexation for service. Prospective buyers or property in such areas have the option of consenting to annexation, "or looking elsewhere," the ruling says.

What does this mean for Washington County? It could mean another round of city/county wrangling, if and when a prospective industry comes to an area where the city can require annexation.

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Will the city do as it's done in the past and make an exception, or will it decide to enforce a policy the judge has now given his blessing?

While it is comforting to assume that when jobs are at stake, the council will be reasonable, but uncertainty about what will or won't be allowed would not be a plus for economic development.

Businesses need to project their expenses and with the uncertainty about whether they will pay city taxes in the future, the projection would only be a guess. And what responsible businessperson would make a big-money decision based on a guess?

The city and county governments need to do what they should have done before and assign staff people to work out an annexation policy that makes sense for both governments. It worked when negotiating the sewage flow-transfer agreement and it could work again.

To encourage both to do that, Washington County's business community needs to speak up in favor of resolving disputes without going to court.

The image of the county and its future prosperity will be hurt if this cycle of bickering isn't stopped, but if Judge Fred Wright is the only one brave enough to say that, it may not happen.

Taxpayers too should demand that from now on their dollars should be spent on real services, instead of on court battles that take place because elected officials can't settle their differences any other way.

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