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City-county plan offers a historic opportunity

September 02, 2004

After 30 years of battles that culminated in last year's lawsuit over annexation policy, on Tuesday the Hagerstown and Washington County governments unveiled a blue print for cooperation.

The plan, drawn up during months of negotiations by Councilmen Lew Metzner and Kristin Aleshire and Commissioners James Kercheval and Doris Nipps, is not ready to be signed because, its authors said, it still needs a lot of fine-tuning.

But it comes closer than anything in the last three decades to getting the two governments working together for the good of all citizens.

The plan's most innovative - and possibly its most controversial - feature is the one that would solve the two governments' differences over annexation policy.

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Under the plan, the two governments would agree on what would be called an Ultimate Growth Area - everyone's best estimate of how big the city will grow in the next 50 years.

Inside that area, the county would share property tax revenue with the city, while outside the area, the city would not try to enforce its annexation policy.

As Metzner pointed out repeatedly, this would exempt the Hopewell Valley industrial development area from the threat of annexation.

The county would also share 20 percent of its portion of the hotel/motel tax, with the caveat that the funds would be spent on items that enhanced tourism in some way.

The county's excise tax revenue would not be shared because as Kercheval said, it was enacted to help the county catch up with an $80 million backlog of school maintenance and renovation projects. But local municipalities will be compensated for the administrative cost of collecting that tax.

All told, the agreement could bring the city some $750,000 in new money, in addition to the $1.1 million that comes from the existing tax-differential agreement.

The tax-differential will remain as it is for now, Kercheval said, because negotiators felt it would be too much to consider it at the same time as the other items.

Commissioners Vic President William Wivell had a series of detailed questions about the agreement, a list he followed with a warning that the budget pot is only so big.

To cover that concern, negotiators said, the agreement will have a trigger mechanism in case there are major cuts in state funding or some other economic problems.

As we said earlier this week, we hope those elected officials who weren't at the table can review this plan with an open mind and remember one important thing:

Progress was made because both sides worked at understanding the other's point of view and agreeing that cooperation made more sense than an endless battle with one side seeking victory.

As Commissioner Kercheval said, the county money that will go to the city under this agreement is not going to Frederick County, but to another part of Washington County.

It's a simple truth, but one that's taken a long time to sink in. Review this plan carefully, yes, but don't forget that it may be the chance of a lifetime to make real progress on city-county relations.

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