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A merger study to watch

December 17, 2004

Saying that local government cannot "keep doing the same old thing and expect different results," an expert in city-county mergers this week pitched the idea of consolidation to officials of Wheeling and Ohio County, W.Va. If officials there agree to study the idea, it will be a process worth watching.

The merger idea was advocated by David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., who wrote "Cities Without Suburbs."

Hagerstown City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot distributed copies of the book to council colleagues in 2001 in an effort to get a discussion going on a possible merger.

In June, Rusk made a presentation to the Hagerstown City Council, during which he pushed the idea of "inclusionary zoning."

In a nutshell, builders who agree to build affordable homes instead of filling their developments with minimansions get a density bonus, allowing them to build more homes than the zoning would ordinarily allow.

Not every city and county whose officials study the idea of merger follow through with it. But in the process, Rusk said, officials discover ways in which they can cooperate to save taxpayers' money.

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The idea never caught on in this area because the people who raised the possibility, including Del. Robert McKee, were harshly criticized.

But Wheeling and Ohio County, W.Va., have a greater incentive than Hagerstown and Washington County.

Not only has West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise encouraged such dialogue, but Rusk said that consolidated governments do much better at adding new jobs than areas where the biggest municipality remains a separate government.

According to The Associated Press, since 1969, Wheeling and Ohio County have lost 60 percent of the manufacturing jobs they once had, so they have an incentive to look at something different.

We urge local officials to watch what happens with this study. As Rusk notes, people and governments are slow to change. But there comes a time when citizens and elected officials have to decide whether the traditional way of doing things still makes sense.

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