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Wrong plan for the city

April 02, 2004

Let's see if we understand this correctly:

The Hagerstown city government, so cash-strapped that it plans to raise property taxes yet again, wants tear down a street full of tax-paying properties to provide a site for a nonprofit organization that won't pay any taxes.

Oh, and by the way, the nonprofit has already turned down a city site and spent millions of dollars preparing to move elsewhere.

It sounds silly when you describe it in that way, but there's no other way to look at the city's latest entreaty to the Washington County Hospital.

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The time to keep the hospital from moving to the Robinwood area was years ago, before construction began on the medical center there. It makes sense to locate the hospital near the medical complex, so doctors can walk from one to the other.

The city government's argument about a lack of access for patients doesn't wash, because those who need to visit their doctors or undergo tests apparently don't have a problem getting there. If there's a need for a medical shuttle from the heart of Hagerstown, that would be simple to set up.

Pursuing this makes us question this administration's priorities. The city government has money for lawyers to fight the hospital's move, but not to lobby for the cash needed for the University System of Maryland's Hagerstown Education Center, even though the latter will be a much more valuable addition to the city. Thank goodness the business community hired a lobbyist to protect the center's operating funds.

Instead of trying to give the hospital a site it doesn't want, city officials should concentrate on finding more revenue or cutting expenses, because this year's proposed property tax would be the fourth in four years.

The increase is necessary in part because Washington County refuses to share revenues from the excise tax and the hotel/motel tax, or to increase the tax setoff the city gets to compensate for county services city residents don't use. Instead of fighting the hospital, the city should fight to get more help from the county.

And if the city is going to hire lawyers, it might consider suing over the county's use of millions in general-fund tax dollars, much of it paid for by city folks, that's used to subsidize county sewer rates.

Finally, city officials should be pushing hard to jump-start the community development corporation set up to redevelop property in downtown Hagerstown.

More property owners with a financial stake in what happens here is what the city needs, as opposed to a futile effort to change a decision that was made a long time ago.

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