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Bowers says it's time for fresh thinking

July 31, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

During his 20 years as a Washington County Commissioner, Ron Bowers didn't mind ruffling a few feathers if he felt it was necessary to get the job done.

Now Bowers, now administrator of Maryland's Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, is taking on what may be the most-often heard expression and way of doing business in Washington County: "We've always done it that way."

In an interview this week, Bowers said that "we're caught in a paradigm and it goes back to the same people doing the same thing over and over again."

If you're not sure what "paradigm" means (and I had to look it up myself), the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines it as a "a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind."

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Given that, what Bowers is saying is that Washington County leaders and citizens have gotten locked into looking at the problems the area faces in only one way, which prevents "out of the box" thinking about solutions.

Bowers said that even though he has been out of office since 1998, he still talks to many people who approach him to discuss local issues.

"Having talked to so many different people, I want to talk about how we can stimulate new ideas, how we can think out of the box and how we can use yesterday's successes to build tomorrow's accomplishments," he said.

Consider the issue of school crowding, Bowers said. Millions of tax dollars will be spent on new schools in the next few years, even though, as Bowers notes, school buildings are now used only six or seven hours a day, five days a week.

"If you go to school or the theater and it's too crowded, they schedule a second service or a second performance," Bowers said.

Why not look at doing the same for schools, Bowers said, or at least ask the people who are going to be asked to pay for schools to engage in a debate on what should be done?

Bowers said such a system would free up more money for the classroom and to bring the county's older schools up to modern standards.

But Bowers said he's not prescribing what the outcome of this debate should be.

"I think the people who need to come up the new ideas are the people who are being asked to put in more money - the taxpaying public," he said.

Other ideas that need debate, Bowers said, include:

n A cap on property taxes, which Bowers said should only come when the county government has worked out new ways to cut costs or increase revenue from other sources.

"Before we see a cap in place, we need to solve the problems with bricks and mortar," he said.

n The agricultural community, which he said should get as much discussion as economic development, since it's one of the county's largest industries.

Why not a rural growth area, like the Urban Growth Area that surrounds Hagerstown, Bowers said, to deal with the use of rural land that is "totally unsuitable for farming."

n Affordable housing, which Bowers said could be stimulate by giving builders the incentive to build such units. The sale price of those would be limited to the annual increase in the cost of living and the buyers would have to meet certain income guidelines.

"People wouldn't buy them up for the profit motive, but for housing units," he said.

n A summit of former elected officials, to discuss the future of the county. Bowers said he is certain that people such as former County Commissioner Harold Boyer and former Del. Irwin Hoffman would offer their expertise at such a meeting.

"I'm sure everyone would do it with sincerity. Think Harold Boyer. Think (former Commissioner) Dick Roulette. And I think (former Commissioner) Linda Irvin-Craig would have some new ideas. I'm sure (former School board member) Nancy Boyer would have some ideas," he said.

Bowers emphasized that he is not criticizing the commissioners currently in office, but advocating for some new ideas and a debate about which way the county needs to go.

"A lot has been put in place that is positive," he said.

But he said, "We need to get out of the paradigm of saying, 'It's always been done that way.'"

As a commissioner, Bowers' priority was to find solutions, but he now concedes that in days gone by, he was sometimes pushed too hard for them, creating animosities. Now he says he is trying to persuade fellow citizens and candidates that there is more than one way of looking at the problems that face us.

It seems like a modest proposal, but as one who has observed local events for 30 years, "the way it's always been done" is often a tough habit to break.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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