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A big project the county almost lost

May 02, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

This week's announcement that Tractor Supply Co. will build an $18.8 million distribution center in Washington County - creating 180 new jobs by 2006 - was welcome news.

But what most people don't know is that it almost didn't happen. It's an involved story, but one you should read if you care about how you're governed, and how your tax money is spent.

Tractor Supply's site is on Hopewell Road. It is within reach of city utilities, but outside the "joint service areas" that Judge Fred Thayer ruled in November 2003 that city was obligated to serve based on a 1997 agreement.

Outside that area, the judge said, the city was free to require annexation - and the payment of city taxes - before granting anyone a water or sewer hookup.

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Shortly thereafter, The Herald-Mail editorialized on the ruling, warning that everyone who thought it would resolve all the issues had been wrong.

Before the next industrial client came along, the editorial urged, all involved should sit down and do what they hadn't been willing to do previously and negotiate an annexation policy.

But they didn't, and when the Tractor Supply folks came calling, county economic development officials apparently assumed that the city would "go along to get along," as it did when the Lenox distribution center received an exemption from the annexation policy in April of 2003.

That exemption came in part because the city policy had been crafted long after Lenox put together its plan.

But Tractor Supply only began working with the EDC last July, long after the judge's ruling was in place.

I'm no expert, but the city government would have been on firm legal ground to require an annexation agreement in exchange for service.

Not only was there the issue of potential tax revenues to consider, but also the issue of how much capacity the city should reserve for development within its borders.

Luckily for the company, it was able to work out an agreement with city officials. Without city agreement, Troxell said the project would have gone bust.

That's why, according to Mayor William Breichner, that "we felt we needed to support the county in bringing this industry to Hagerstown."

Sounds all sweetness and light, doesn't it? It wasn't. Sources close to the negotiations tell me that the county officials made it clear that if the city didn't bend on this one, the county might not contribute its share for a downtown parking deck.

From the county's perspective, it seems that cooperation is a good thing, as long as someone else is making all the concessions.

With a healthy budget, at least compared to the city's, the county can afford to throw its weight around, but it's a bad strategy.

Why? Because if city voters realize what they're not getting from county government, they may throw out nice guy Breichner and return Bob Bruchey to office.

Would Bruchey have bent on the Tractor Supply issue, or would he have told the company to take it or leave it, and scolded the EDC for not advising the client about what the court ruling really meant?

Maybe the jobs would have been lost or maybe not, but I'm sure Bruchey would have come away with a better deal, like a share of hotel/motel tax, which the city doesn't get a dime of, despite the number of motels located in the city. Or the excise tax, which the city doesn't see a nickel of. Add to that the fact that the county is still using a big share of city taxpayers' dollars to hold down sewer rates for those outside the city and you've got the potential for some angry city voters.

That's would certainly be true if someone like Bruchey or a latter-day Larry Vaughn decided to stir them up.

One of the most disappointing things about all of this has been the behavior of Commissioner James Kercheval, who I felt would be a breath of fresh air when he was elected.

Almost immediately, however, he stuck his fresh ideas on the shelf and signed on to the annexation lawsuit even though the city had offered a compromise that seemed more than adequate.

In March, when the contract was awarded for the runway extension at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, Kercheval and Commissioner Doris Nipps said that some citizens were opposed because they based their opinions on newspaper columns that they claimed contained inaccurate information.

I subsequently contacted both to offer space for a rebuttal. So far, nothing. Candidate Kercheval would have replied, but now that he's in office, he seems to have forgotten that educating citizens about what government does is part of an elected official's job. What a shame.

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