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City taxes will be higher if council remains deaf to business

March 12, 2006|By Tim Rowland

Hagerstown's annual State of the City address Tuesday proved to be a chance for council members to stand up in public and brag about their ignorance.

A unified lobbying effort? Nobody asked us. East End redevelopment? What's that? Stadium? It's not our job to know.

You give these council members a pop quiz about what's really going on in their town and you get the feeling they would do about as well as Vince Young did on the Wonderlic.

Equally, or perhaps more, puzzling to several Chamber of Commerce members who attended this week's event, was the council's contention that they aren't involved because no one ever asks them to participate.

Several chamber members said this week they have left repeated messages for council members and finally gave up after it became clear the council had no interest in talking. And council members Penny Nigh and Kelly Cromer had no interest in talking (one must save one's breath for the council meetings, I suppose) to the Chamber on Wednesday.

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Councilmembers Lew Metzner and Kristin Aleshire were the only two of the group with guts enough to stand up and speak, even if they didn't particularly distinguish themselves.

Especially jaw-dropping to business folk was the claim that the city has been left out of state affairs. Instead, chamber members say invitations have gone unanswered.

Last summer, Gov. Robert Ehrlich took the good time and trouble to come to Public Square to hand out some state money, much of which directly benefited city people.

Downtown merchants looked around for the council members, but none were in sight. Apparently the governor was expected to crawl on bended knees to ask the council to attend.

And please, if you are a City Council member and you are not up to date on the East End redevelopment project, that can only be viewed as an extreme dereliction of duty. They all know where Dick Phoebus' office is (well, come to think of it, maybe they don't), so would it kill any of them to drop by to ask what's up?

Nigh in particular has been guilty of perpetuating this divide, framing it as a "little guy against The Man" debate, and marshaling the proverbial peasants with their pitchforks against the establishment. Her position was given credence last year when a slate of candidates with the clear support of business leaders tried to roust the incumbent Democrats out of office.

But this begs the question: If the group of people that is most responsible for the vitality of downtown and - and pays a substantial portion of City Hall's bills - is so moved to go to an extreme attempt at wholesale replacement, shouldn't this be a clue that you are not performing as well as you could be?

In a weird way, the council was directly responsible for bringing something to Hagerstown I never thought I'd see: Organization. Of course like a lot of previously untried enterprises, this one fell apart pretty quickly, the dagger being the incumbents' classic campaign ad showing a picture of City Hall with a sign proclaiming "Not for sale."

But it's been almost a year now, and the image has not diminished much. A majority of residents have apparently bought into the contention that a few people in suits have a secret desire to run the town.

If only that were true. Right now, Hagerstown's main problem seems to be that no one wants to run the town. It will be a supreme challenge for new Mayor Bob Bruchey to bring some focus to the table. This is a council that knows exactly what it does not want and spares no wind to tell you why. But what does it want? We have no idea, because they apparently have no idea.

Paradoxically, the one thing residents seem to want - a city with low taxes - will not be possible, precisely because this council is doing its best to discourage new businesses that would help generate revenue and keep taxes low.

The word is out among entrepreneurs: Do business in Hagerstown at your own risk. The City Council won't help you, and you may get one of Nigh's trademark temper tantrums thrown in your face for the effort.

Now if the council has a plan that will improve Hagerstown without involving private enterprise, I for one would like to hear it. Look, business is not the enemy. Failure to listen is the enemy. Insecurity is the enemy. Fear is the enemy.

As one businessman said this week, "fear stems from what you don't know." When you're afraid, you don't return calls, participate in community building activities or take the podium in front of a potentially critical group.

City Council can continue to preside as rulers supreme of Hagerstown as a welfare state, filled with government offices and subsidized rent checks. And they will be re-elected to infinity by stoking the fears of people who distrust people who have more than they do. So if all council members care about is their jobs, they're doing fine.

But a little outreach wouldn't hurt. If you truly represent your city, it's not enough to wait for someone to call you, and then refuse to call back when they do. You wonder, when was the last time Nigh or any of the others just popped into a downtown business and said, what can we do for you?

If they did, they might be surprised to find out there are a lot of business leaders out there who would bend over backward to help City Hall - Democrat or Republican, blue collar or white collar - succeed.

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