New thinking needed for new Hagerstown

July 16, 2006|by JOHN SCHNEBLY

If I were a king, or Tom Delay, I would redraw the boundaries of the City of Hagerstown. In case you haven't noticed, the city now sprawls and meanders from points north near the airport all the way down south to the Potomac River.

Shame on old Jonathan Hager for not having the sense to make the city boundary big enough to reflect the physical reality of 21st century Washington County. He just wasn't a visionary.

As we all know, time and history conspire to demand changes in the way we live and function. So it is with the Hagerstown metropolitan area.

The problem we face today is that there are four governments operating in metropolitan Hagerstown. These include the city of Hagerstown, the towns of Funkstown and Williamsport, and, of course, Washington County.


Each of these entities is charting its own course with regard to a variety of important issues, including land-use planning, development and maintenance of utilities and governmental finance. The local independence of these bodies, while stubbornly defended by many in these jurisdictions, is becoming a hindrance to progress on greater community issues.

We need only look at our performance in trying to erect a modern hospital, or our efforts to connect the collection systems of several of our sewage utilities to see evidence of our dysfunction. Both initiatives have involved interaction and rivalry among the city, county towns and county government.

These initiatives have taken years and years to move forward. They have had to survive the scrutiny and manipulations of various city and town councils, county commissions, government administrators, attorneys and state agencies. With these numbers of parties involved, it's no wonder that the span of a decade is becoming our new time standard for accomplishing progress on any collaborative public project.

Those who are not disturbed by this trend, no doubt, will tout this phenomenon as a glorious display of democracy in action. They will celebrate the independence and sovereignty of every city, town, district, sub-district, ward and block. All the while, the region, the Hagerstown metropolitan region that embodies the modern, geographic city of Hagerstown, suffers.

This grand exhibit of parochialism burdens us with many costs. How much has the hospital construction budget jumped because of our delays? How much sewer capacity will we sacrifice because each government wants exclusive control of its own system? How many businesses that might engage in high-quality investments in our area, are turned off by the vagaries of our inter-governmental relationships?

Short of some spectacular financial crash that would incapacitate one or more of the jurisdictions in question, I doubt that my idea of waving a king's wand and creating a single, new government for greater Hagerstown has much of a shot at becoming reality. However, I do believe that through the electoral process, we can do much to promote better results.

In the upcoming election cycle, let us seek leaders who understand the physical reality of the new Hagerstown. Let us find people who understand that to accomplish anything we must share power, and place a high priority on multilateral, regional solutions.

I know what you're thinking at this point. Hasn't Bob Maginnis written this editorial before? We're all for intergovernmental cooperation, but how do we get the love-fest to break out?

One avenue I feel needs further investigation is support for a concept I will call, for lack of a better term, "binding regional intergovernmental planning." There are certain government functions, such as capital budgeting for our utilities, that seem to cry for regionalized coordination.

It should be possible for the city, the county and the towns affected by utilities in the urban growth area to instruct their staffs to join together each year to prioritize regional improvements to the systems and draft a regional budget.

Through some type of binding, prenegotiated agreement, the jurisdictions at interest could then debate and vote each year on such a "regional utility" capital budget. Agreeing to take this approach on selected management functions would go along way toward allowing elected officials to consider the big picture, rather than taking time building trenches to protect their own turf.

And what would the state agencies and departments in Annapolis think of us then? You mean those crazy people in Hagerstown are speaking now with one voice? Fascinating - let's send them some money.

John Schnebly is a resident of the Hagerstown area.

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