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Council isn't always the bad guy here

February 06, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

If you're running against an incumbent, you're certainly not going to say that he or she is doing a good job. Why run otherwise?

That accounts for some of the criticism Hagerstown's current mayor and council are getting for things that happened during the last four years. But is the criticism entirely justified?

Some of it, yes. But on some other items, the council is paying the price for televising its meetings. I'm surprised none of the challengers thought about compiling a DVD of the worst moments, including the impolite manner in which supporters of the Washington County Hospital's move to Robinwood were treated during their visit to City Hall.

It's one thing to disagree with someone who comes before you, but do it with respect. Councilwoman Penny Nigh was the worst offender, but there was no call for order from Mayor William Breichner.

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However, there are legitimate reasons for the city to question the hospital's plans, the first being the more than $500,000 in health-care costs the city incurs annually for its employees. If the new hospital isn't as cost-effective as promised, every city taxpayer will pay the price.

And if the location isn't the right one, some citizens could pay with their lives if an ambulance gets stuck in traffic at rush hour.

But the council's decision to spend $300,000 on consultant service wasn't a wise one. The same question applies that I asked Councilman Kristen Aleshire when he told me he'd taken a week off work to comb the city's budget to shave pennies off a proposed tax increase: Why couldn't the city's top managers do that job?

The council was also criticized for its stubbornness in regard to its annexation policy, which required an agreement to annex in exchange for city utility service. But here's how I look at it: Washington County wouldn't have lost a dime on that, unless a prospective industry balked at being taxed by two governments.

To prevent that problem, city officials agreed to a deal in which many of the county's prime industrial areas would be exempt, but the county went ahead with its lawsuit anyway.

That didn't turn out as planned, because the judge ruled that except for areas the city had previously agreed to serve, Hagerstown was free to do as it pleased on annexation.

That spurred action on the 2-plus-2 committee, which hasn't yielded a great many concluded agreements. Commissioners President Greg Snook told me Tuesday that talks had been slowed by the consent order the city signed in regard to sewage spills in Antietam Creek.

All right, but I'm not sure what the consent order has to do with things like the so-called tax-differential payment the city gets for services its citizens pay county taxes for but don't really get to use.

That payment was first negotiated by Commissioner Ron Bowers and Mayor Steve Sager in 1986. In 2000, Snook described it as "antiquated" and said the four new commissioners would probably fix it. Five years later, it's not fixed yet.

An adjustment would be justified because the county is still using general-fund money, much of it collected from city residents, to subsidize sewer rates for out-of-city customers.

That said, the two governments are getting along much better lately. City and county officials jointly presented a proposal to modify the county's excise tax to the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly recently and more progress is reportedly close.

My point is not to dispute that, because the 2-plus-2 group has brought much better communication. For example, city officials who once felt they were being aced out of all excise tax revenues for no good reason now realize that to thrive and attract new residents and businesses, the city needs schools that are modern inside and out.

Mistakes and missteps were made in the past, but there were offenders on both sides. The commissioners may only look better because they were smart enough to know that when it comes to governing, TV isn't always your friend.

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