End-of-the-year cleanup

December 19, 2004|by Tom Firey

Many people use the end of the year to take care of chores that have needed attention for months. Likewise, columnists use the year's last op-ed to offer final comments and tie up loose ends from previous columns. I certainly have a lot of loose ends, so here's my winter tidying:

· I owe a sincere mea culpa to Hagerstown Councilman Kristin Aleshire, who - unlike his council colleagues - continues to ask the right question about the intended relocation of the Washington County Hospital. When I first wrote on the issue last May, I chastised the council for using Maryland's reprehensible Certificate of Need process to block the hospital's attempt to relocate near its Robinwood Medical Center, and for pushing the construction of a new facility downtown on land the city would seize from private landowners.

I stand by my criticisms of the council and the state's CON process. But I unfairly lumped Aleshire's point of view in with his colleagues'.


Instead of pushing for a downtown location, he has been asking an important question: Why did hospital officials decide against their once-preferred plan to build the new facility in the Friendship Technology Park off Downsville Pike?

That site appears to have excellent infrastructure access and officials had projected that a Downsville hospital would cost considerably less than a Robinwood facility. So why was it nixed?

Hospital officials likely have a good answer to that question, perhaps involving the many synergy benefits that would arise from having the hospital and medical campus together. Those benefits could very well justify the added cost. But, unless I missed it, hospital officials have not presented a clear, detailed answer to Aleshire's question. That's too bad, because a good answer would go a long way toward publicly resolving this controversy.

· I want to respond to Herald-Mail editorial page editor Bob Maginnis, who disputes my claim that increasing the size and allowable density in Washington County's proposed growth zones would improve housing affordability. Maginnis claims those changes wouldn't yield lower housing prices because developers wouldn't "willingly take less than the market would bear" for housing.

Of course, developers won't charge less than the market will bear. But significantly increasing the number of potential lots would change what the market would bear. Increasing the supply of possible lots would lower prices, just as the current building moratorium's constraint on the supply of lots has sent housing prices soaring.

· I also want to respond to Tom Immer, who has twice criticized my argument against consolidating Hagerstown and Washington County governments. I've argued that consolidation would likely yield costlier, less-responsive government because all county residents would become captured customers.

Instead, Hagerstown and Washington County should continue to compete with each other over which government offers the mix of taxes and services that residents prefer. I went so far as to argue that the city and county should be made more independent of each other, including decreasing the piggyback tax.

My argument rests on what policy analysts call the Leviathan theory - the notion that having several small governments in a geographic area leads to competition between them for residents, and thus they strive to be less intrusive, more productive and more fiscally prudent. That competition appears more beneficial to residents than any economy of scale benefits from consolidated governments.

Immer, in an Aug. 22 letter, dismisses my argument as "intellectually dishonest," claiming Leviathan theory "is a 'grand scale' theory and is not remotely applicable to the local situation."

But Immer is mistaken: Leviathan theory receives its strongest empirical support from local-level data on general purpose governments. In fact, the academic literature on Leviathan theory focuses primarily on county and municipal governments.

· Finally, I want to applaud commissioners Jim Kercheval and Bill Wivell for floating ideas for how to address rural landowners' concerns about equity losses from the adoption of the county's proposed rezoning.

Both men stress that their ideas are very preliminary efforts to find a solution, but those efforts are valuable. Moreover, in offering ideas that could easily be misconstrued and attacked by opportunists, Kercheval and Wivell have taken a significant political risk. That is something rarely done or appreciated in Washington County.

Thomas A. Firey, a Washington County native, is managing editor of the Cato Institute's Regulation magazine and a senior fellow of The Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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