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A cease fire here at home?

August 25, 2006

It should have been simple: With the help of a state grant, the City of Hagerstown would transfer some of the sewage flow from its heavily burdened plant to Washington County, which has capacity aplenty at its Conococheague plant.

But the arrangement wasn't finalized for four years after the two governments started talking about it. We applaud this success, but hope future city and county leaders remember what it costs when disputes drag on and on.

Money is only one cost. Both governments paid more than $100,000 in legal fees related to the flow-transfer agreement and the city's annexation policy.

That doesn't include staff time spent on those matters. There is a dollar cost for that time, but it's also time that could have been spent on other, more productive matters.

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To make matters worse, after four years of talking about annexation policy, including many meetings of the 2-plus-2 committee - two commissioners and two council members - it hasn't been solved.

That's because Judge Fred Thayer's ruling didn't provide the total victory that both sides hoped would be theirs.

The short version of the judge's ruling is as follows: The city cannot require annexation before providing water and sewer to an area of the county it is required to serve under a 1997 agreement.

But outside that area, the judge ruled, the city is free to require annexation for service. Prospective buyers or property in such areas have the option of consenting to annexation, "or looking elsewhere," the ruling says.

That leaves many tracts in the county's inventory of economic development sites vulnerable to a demand by the city that in exchange for service the business must agree to annexation, if the city boundary ever extends that far.

The last prospect to be affected was the Tractor Supply distribution center. Following some negotiations, the city agreed to waive the agreement. But the county's economic development officials don't want such uncertainty hanging over future projects.

We suggest voters ask the would-be commissioners how they would craft a system to end such disputes. It's time for local governments to turn "us" and "them" into "we."

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