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Unsolved problems won't just go away

January 31, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

When it comes to local government and community issues, the scariest thing anybody involved can say is "What's the rush?"

The words don't sound scary because it's not reasonable or prudent to rush into a solution, particularly when a wrong move could cost local government - and the taxpayers - millions of dollars.

But on an issue where somebody's going to get upset no matter what you do, it's easier not to do anything, at least right away. But just as actions have consequences, so does inaction. Let me offer a few examples.

Last year I spoke to a member of the county's affordable housing task force who told me that it might be too late to do much because land prices have gotten so high.

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It certainly seems too late to follow through on condo conversions, a plan I've been pushing since the early 1990s. My idea: Take some of Hagerstown's old rental units, covert them to condos in the $60,000 to $70,000 range and allow people who couldn't afford a $100,000 home to build equity they could use to trade up later.

Now real estate prices have increased to the point where even a rundown apartment building is fetching big bucks. Do the repairs needed to make the condos salable and they'd be in the $100,000 range. So much for affordable housing.

That's the hard truth - If we don't solve our problems as a community, they don't go away. They get worse and more expensive to solve as time goes by.

I learned that 30 years ago when delays on the Fountain Head sewer project caused by feuding between the Hagerstown and Washington County governments added millions to its cost.

I saw it in the 1970s in the school system, where delayed maintenance left the system with a backlog of projects that would cost millions more when they were finally addressed.

I saw it again when Hagerstown and Washington County went to court over the city's annexation policy, each side believing it could win total victory. Instead, what they got was the equivalent of a split decision in boxing.

In some areas of the county, the city can still demand new industries sign a pre-annexation agreement as a condition of getting utility service. By the way, that ruling was issued three years ago and there's still no city-county agreement on how to handle affected industries.

And then there was last year, when the county commissioners, after agonizing over a rural rezoning plan for a couple of years, finally passed one all agreed was flawed, but the best they could do.

Fifteen years ago, a strategic planning report done by a citizen group called Focus Inc. recommended new ways to preserve farmland by paying for easements and helping farmers find new ways to make their operations more profitable.

But it's taken that long for county government to agree on a time-payment plan to buy preservation easements and to consider hiring an agricultural marketer. Though Frederick County has done the latter for years, it somehow seems too exotic to work on the other side of South Mountain.

There's better news on education. The local school system began a turnaround with an academic audit in 1997 that found that, in many cases, there was little linkage between School Board initiatives and who was responsible for seeing that they succeeded.

Another forward step: In recent years, the community has been spared the class resentment commissioner-wannabees once stirred up by pointing to the salaries paid to top school administrators.

Perhaps that new attitude was sparked when a consultant study of economic-development potential at the old Fort Ritchie Army base found that a high-tech center would be difficult to staff, given the lack of degreed professionals here.

As a result of the audit and a push for more involvement by Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan, there is more citizen participation in the schools now. But the Focus report's call for a parent-effectiveness program is still something that needs work.

Privately, a lot of teachers tell me that too many parents hold them responsible for their children's progress whether or not the lessons are reinforced at home. The report of the school system's Minority Achievement Task Force warned that without attention to items such as students' lack of commitment to learning and teen pregnancy, the entire community would suffer.

But the area's biggest problem and one I alluded to earlier, is the continuing divide between the Hagerstown and Washington County governments.

The idea of merging the two governments and avoiding the squabbling - and the legal expenses of court battles - has been around since 1970. But the two governments can't even agree on a merger of their permit and inspection departments, though they're located just blocks away from one another.

The failure to resolve these problems doesn't stop government from doing its day-to-day business. But there are consequences, some we know about and some we don't.

The increase in costs because the two local governments didn't have a unified strategy on the new Washington County Hospital will be passed on to every patient and their insurance company.

What we won't be able to see is how many brilliant doctors or high-paying industries take a look at this area, then decide to locate someplace else where things are better run and organized.

So when someone says we ought not rush into a solution or worse, suggests that a twice-studied problem should be scrutinized again, get concerned. How late is too late is a question we really don't want to know the answer to.

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