The most important races in the '06 county election

May 30, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Can you afford a vacation this year? What will gasoline prices do to the cost of your commute? Will the upcoming hurricane season bring another storm like 1972's Agnes to send local streams out of their banks?

Those are the sorts of questions I would bet are on most peoples' minds right now. And yet, in little more than a month, a race will begin for some key local elected offices.The outcome could affect what happens locally for the next 20 years or more.

The Washington County Commissioners have the power to set local tax rates, to grant or withhold money from the local school system and provide for the public safety.

They also fund departments charged with attracting new jobs and reviewing land use policies. The sum of their duties means that the commissioners hold the county's most important local elected offices.


And yet, with all the distractions and immediate issues citizens have to face - getting the kids to soccer practice and keeping tabs on who a teen's friends are - it can be difficult to focus on long-term concerns, such as who would best fill this vital role.

Here are a few questions I believe the voters should ask:

· What are your qualifications?

Government is not a business, because it does many things that aren't designed to make a profit. But someone who has not dealt with large budgets and strategic planning will have a lot to learn about this job before they can do it well.

Working with volunteer groups is also a plus because, like volunteers, citizens can't be ordered to do something. They must be persuaded.

· What will you do to make sure growth takes place in an orderly manner and have your ideas worked anywhere else?

Some people who run for office have ideas that sound good, but aren't practical. For example, some have suggested that a pedestrian mall be created in downtown Hagerstown.

That might be nice, but would involve closing and rerouting U.S. 40. That road is controlled by the Maryland Department of Transportation, which is unlikely to allow that.

· What is your long-term plan for making sure the area has adequate water and sewer service?

In October 2002, the commissioners declared a building moratorium because they feared large-scale development would deplete groundwater resources. Four years later, there has been no real study to determine how much water is there. Is time for that to happen, because it may not be possible to draw an endless amount form the Potomac River.

Why not? Because in the summer of 2002, the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin issued a report noting that in the event of a drought in the year 2030, continuing upstream development could leave the metropolitan Washington, D.C. suburbs without enough water. The next local allocation of river water may be a lot tougher to get.

· What will you do to form a better long-term relationship with the Hagerstown city government?

The city can't be ignored, because, as demonstrated by the research that went into David Rusk's book, "Cities Without Suburbs," counties which surround poorer urban areas are adversely affected by that poverty. Prosperity for the county will depend on raising up the city.

The commissioners can do this by increasing the tax set-off payment to the city in compensation for using city residents' tax dollars to subsidize county residents' sewer rates.

And how about combining some functions or some city and county departments? It's an overused clich, but if we can put a man on the moon, the city and county can combine their permits and inspection departments.

· Do you favor spending the money to look ahead for five, 10 or 20 years?

It seems clear from what wasn't anticipated in the last five years that county government needs to put more resources into looking at trends and possibilities.

The run-up in housing prices was predictable, but it left the county with no real strategy for affordable housing. The next county board needs a lot fewer surprises.

The Herald-Mail Articles