At a time when we need it most, four leaders step forward

September 05, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Forget the money for the moment. It was enough that the City of Hagerstown and the Washington County Commissioners were sitting down together, and this time it wasn't in front of a judge.

Normally I'm not a huge fan of secret meetings, but sometimes conditions deteriorate to the point where that's the only way anything can be accomplished. City-county relations had reached such depths.

So for the past five months, Commissioners Jim Kercheval and Dori Nipps have met quietly with council members Kristin Aleshire and Lew Metzner to try to resolve the fussin' and feudin' that have occasionally landed the two sides in court, wasting ridiculous amounts of tax money and time.

Someone needed to step forward and show some leadership, and the Triumvirate of Four appears to have done just that. It is also a credit to the remaining commissioners and council members that they are giving the plan an honest hearing, even if they themselves weren't entirely in the loop.


In particular, Kercheval and Nipps deserve credit because the city needs the county a whole lot more than the county needs the city. The county is richer, it's growing faster and it has more legal cards to play. The county needs some of the city's sewage-treatment capacity right now, but that's about it. The county could have continued to strong-arm the city, and didn't have a terrible amount of reason to deal.

Save for this: It was the right thing to do.

The issues that have tangled the city and county mostly consist of eye-glazing stuff such as sewer capacity and annexation. But some of the fundamental unfairness is easy to understand. For example, even though the city has plenty of hotels, it's the county that receives all the revenue from the hotel room tax. And in keeping with the county's new excise tax on development, the city is forced to pay for the costs of collecting these taxes on growth within the city, but it must turn all of the revenue over to the county.

But Kercheval and Nipps realized that the county can't truly flourish unless its largest municipality flourishes as well. And Aleshire and Metzner realized that they needed to keep the city's requests reasonable. Even if the city doesn't receive a full and fare share, half a pot with County Commissioners as allies beats no pot with an office of enemies two blocks away.

The amount of financial benefit to the city is modest - perhaps less than $1 million. More important, it envisions city expansion to as much as twice its current size. In exchange, the city won't press to expand into county industrial areas, where incorporation might be seen as a negative by companies looking to relocate here.

All of this is somewhat secondary, of course, to the fact that the two governments are cooperating and communicating in a nonlitigious manner.

Too many important matters are on both city and county agendas at the moment for the two sides to be fighting each other, in addition to fighting multiple challenges.

The new college, the new hospital, some major road inadequacies, the Arts & Entertainment District, redevelopment proposals in and around Municipal Stadium, new zoning laws that must protect rural beauty without neglecting farmers and lower-income home buyers, runway expansion - any one of these would be an ambitious project by itself.

It's a full plate on both sides of the boundary line, and both sides will have to lift together, not pull apart, to meet their goals at this critical point in time.

The deals and discussions could still break down, of course, but there is reason for optimism. Each board has five voting members, meaning three votes are necessary for an agreement. Obviously, each side has two votes, meaning the Triumvirate of Four needs only one more vote each.

The city in particular has historically been suspicious of the county - and not without reason, in some cases - and it almost goes without saying that it hasn't particularly distinguished itself on the negotiations front as far as the new hospital is concerned.

On the county's side, Commissioner Bill Wivell in particular can be stubborn and unyielding, even over the most trivial of details. Overall, it's hard to argue that his attention to minutiae isn't an asset; you want someone like that on your team. But these qualities don't make for a good negotiator, particularly over big-picture deals such as this.

Councilman Linn Hendershot is right when he says "the devil is in the details." But this may be a time to walk around the devil instead of through him. The prize for the city is a little spare change and some room to grow. The cost to the county is negligible, and its gain is a more healthy friend and partner for bringing progress to the community. That's a far greater issue than a few gallons of sewage or a few percentage points of revenue.

"Both sides are giving. Both sides are taking," said Commissioner John Munson. "And that's the way it's gotta work."

Perhaps for the first time since he was elected, everyone in Washington County should be able to agree with the wise words of John Munson.

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