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Can this political vet make a comeback?

November 13, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

Remember when Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer decided he might have quit the game too soon? The O's hero of the '70s lasted just one game in spring training in 1991 before hanging up his spikes for good.

But political comebacks don't depend on being in good physical condition. That's why it would be unwise to count Ron Bowers out of the 2006 race for a seat on the board of Washington County Commissioners.

If he runs, Bowers, now administrator of Maryland's Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, has a few hurdles to overcome. He's an unabashed defender of a previous board's decision to build the Conococheague Waster Water Treatment Plant.

The project eventually led to the county's Sanitary Comission running up a debt of more than $50 million.

Sewer rates, which had been kept articifically low instead of being raised incrementally, had to be hiked. Affected citizens howled. I still remember sitting in the auditorium at North Hagerstown High during a sewer hearing, next to a group fo sheriff's deputies standing in the aisle, their hands on holstered weapons.

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But now that the state is proposing to cap all counties' sewer capacity where it is right now, the decision looks like like a mistake and more like foresight.

Then there was Bowers' 2003 arrest for driving under the influence after his state-owned SUV struck a mailbox on Maugansville Road and plunged down an embankment.

To his credit, Bowers admitted immediately he had a problem with alcohol and sought treatment through the Washington County Health Department. Whether that is enough to please those who felt he should have been fired imediately is another question.

The incumbents might welcome Bowers' entry into the race because it would put some of the focus on him, as opposed to the board's record, which is a mixed bag, to put it nicely.

Two current commissioners have held many meetings with representatives of the Hagerstown city government, but not much has been accomplished, although the commissioners have put money into a second downtown parking deck to support the Arts & Entertainment District program.

What the commissioners haven't done is settle the annexation issue with the city. Every time the county has a prospect for the Hopewell Valley industrial area,city officials believe they could ask for a pre-annexation agreement.

The last time that happened with the Tractor Supply warehouse, the commissioners got the city to relent by hinting that they would pull the parking deck cash. What they'll use next time is uncertain.

The current commissioners also pressed the city to study its rates for those customers of city utilities who live outside the municipal boundaries.

At present, non-city residents pay higher rates, and the commissioners believed that a study would lead to rate reductions. But the study didn't support that.

Then there is the zoning issue. Something had to be done to update the 1973 ordinance, which allowed one house per acre in agricultural areas.

The state wouldn't help with infrastructure costs if the county allowed a build-out at that density. But the new plan was a flawed compromise that the commissioners passed only because they didn't feel they could agree on anything better.

For one thing, Transferrable Development Rights, which would allow landowners to sell their right to develop to builders, weren't included.

What would Bowers do if he returned to office? In a July interview, he called for new ways of thinking about old problems.

If schools are crowded, he said, why not consider sending students in shifts, so that buildings are used more than six or seven hours a day, five days a week?

Bowers said he would not try to impose that as a solution, but would ask the people who have to pay the bill - the citizens - for their input on solutions.

Bowers said he would also like to see more input from the agricultural community on economic-development issues. And Bowers proposed giving builders incentives to build affordable homes and limiting the sale price in a way that would be based on the annual increase in the cost of living.

In the interview, Bowers emphasized that he was not criticizing the current county board, but advocating for new ideas and a debate about the county's future.

The latter would be most welcome. As I have written previously, the strategic planning report released by the Focus Inc. citizens group in 1991 was designed to show citizens what was possible, then let them choose among the alternatives.

But somewhere on the road to the decision-making, vision-creating part of the process, things got stalled. Do Washington County residents want to retain the semi-rural quality the county has, or become a bedroom community for Washington, D.C., as Frederick County has done?

Bowers is talking about acting on ideas as opposed to reacting to things as they happen. He has kept active in public events and was a master at constituent service. Time will tell whether Washington County citizens want to look to a leader from the past to take them into the future.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion editor of The Herald-Mail.

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