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Time for a fresh, realistic start

August 15, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Jim Latimer, Charlie Shindle and Ed Lough are as nice a trio of fellows as you'd ever want to meet. They've given plenty of their time to public causes such as economic development and the revitalization of downtown Hagerstown. They know that change is seldom simple and that in a negotiation, nobody ends up with everything they want.

So why does their latest statement (carried today on Page F-7) sound so unlike the cool, calm deal-makers that these guys have been and - I hope - could be again?

Maybe it's frustration. As chairs of the Hagerstown-Washington County Community Healthcare Coalition, they're responding to the latest concessions the City of Hagerstown is seeking in exchange for its approval of the Washington County Hospital's move to Robinwood.

Sources close to the negotiations tell me the city government is asking the hospital to build a bridge across Antietam Creek that would connect the hospital to Eastern Boulevard, to help rebuild the U.S. 40 intersections at Edgewood Drive and Mount Aetna Road and to make an annual payment in lieu of taxes.

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Latimer, Shindle and Lough label all these things unreasonable, but all three know that in a negotiation, one party often asks for the moon, but is willing to settle for a few pounds of cheese instead.

I'm not a professional negotiator, but since no one else seems to be making any major headway, let me suggest the outlines of a compromise.

Let's start by conceding that both the hospital and the city government have mishandled parts of this negotiation. Mistakes have been made. The city's "shopping list" of 17 demands is one; the hospital's often-dismissive attitude of legitimate city concerns is another.

So let's have each side start anew with a pledge to take the other on good faith, unless and until bad behavior or misrepresentations makes that impossible. This may be the toughest part of the whole thing, but we've got to start someplace.

Let's also agree that if we build a state-of-the-art, critical-care facility at Robinwood, more people will be drawn there. And unless teleportation becomes feasible in the next few years, they'll come by car. Even hospital CEO James Hamill has said no one could have predicted how successful Robinwood Medical Center would be. A new hospital would mean even more "success," i.e., more cars.

More cars require traffic solutions, and pardon me if I don't accept the studies that have been done so far, the ones that say no bridge is needed. When traffic consultants guarantee their reports and offer rebates if the outcome they predict doesn't materialize, then I'll be impressed.

Traffic is also a key concern of those residents who'll be the hospital's new neighbors, some of whom took hospital officials at their word in 1991 when they said they wouldn't move the hospital there.

So let's agree that when the amount of patient traffic reaches a certain level, the hospital, along with other developers in the area, will kick in a certain percentage toward the cost of a new bridge and intersection improvements. We might even agree that if patients arrive by shuttle bus or County Commuter, they wouldn't count against the total, creating an incentive for the hospital to either run buses or promote their use.

Of course, building the bridge later instead of sooner will be more expensive, so all involved (including the developers) might want to do it now. It would certainly be a safety factor in case the U.S. 40 intersections are tied up by accidents or rush-hour traffic.

As for a payment in lieu of taxes, Lough, Shindle and Latimer raise the specter that it could be applied to all nonprofits. If all nonprofits drew 298 calls for police service, as Washington County Hospital did in 2003, that might be appropriate.

There's a cost involved in handling those calls, which city police will do if the hospital's new site is annexed. Let's solve this by agreeing on a per-unit cost for each call, then sending a quarterly statement. Hospital officials might find it cheaper to employ more of their own private security personnel to keep those costs down.

Lough, Shindle and Latimer could move these talks along by sitting down with individual council members and listening to their concerns. But that approach would work only if they're willing to be independent citizens and tell hospital officials if they feel a city official has a legitimate point. Even a small concession would remove some of the "us vs. them" feeling that has plagued these talks.

If this issue is settled, the city will realize an increase in tax revenue, as housing developments spring up alongside the new hospital and the hospital's existing site goes back onto the tax rolls.

The financial picture be may not be as rosy as the coalition's numbers suggest, but it will be more cash than is coming in now. And in case anyone hasn't noticed, the neighborhoods around the hospital are hardly booming with economic development. More cash might even allow the city to hire a director for the downtown redevelopment corporation, further enhancing the tax base.

Both sides have much to gain from an agreement, but only if, as I said at the outset, they realize that nobody gets everything they want. In this case, nobody will get anything until all start working toward a solution together.

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