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On city-county relations, old habits aren't broken yet

February 02, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

At the start of Tuesday's quarterly meeting of the Washington County Commissioners and the Hagerstown Mayor and City Council, both sides were serving up heaping helpings of good wishes and testimonials to the joys of inter-governmental communication.

But the smiles vanished when the agenda reached "revenue sharing," especially after Commissioner James Kercheval said the city didn't merit any more county money than it gets now, because the county spends $8 million more on Hagerstown than it collects there.

Kercheval said that the city has 28 percent of the population, but only contributes 22 percent of the county's revenue. Although the city complains about not getting much revenue from fees such as the recordation tax, Kercheval noted that the county board chose to spend much of that revenue on rebuilding Salem Avenue Elementary School, located in the city.

The mayor and council were not pleased. Councilman Lewis Metzner pointed out that city residents also pay county taxes. Mayor Robert Bruchey said there are many county departments - including planning, information technology and engineering - which city residents don't use.

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"When we look at $4.3 million in transfer tax and $12 million in recordation tax and the surplus that you have, it's hard to swallow that you pay $8 million more," Bruchey said.

Commissioner William Wivell referred to the cost-analysis again and said he favored saving money by combining city and county departments. As for that fee money, Wivell said much of that had to be used to plug an $11 million hole left when the county overestimated excise tax revenues.

OK, said Metzner, let's combine city and county police and fire/rescue services.

"It's easier to do the smaller ones first," Wivell said.

On the issue of city-county cooperation, there is obviously still a long way to go. But consider these points:

Even if you concede that Kercheval's cost-analysis is correct, basing the distribution of revenue on how much an area generates - as opposed to how much it needs - seems a bit heartless. How will the poorer areas be lifted up unless the county lends them a hand?

Kercheval and Wivell should read David Rusk's "Cities Without Suburbs," which Richard Phoebus, now secretary of the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership, gave me a copy of about four years ago.

Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., used numerous studies and 40 years worth of U.S. Census data to reach his conclusion. In short, Rusk said that counties that surround a core of urban poverty don't do as well economically as those whose central cities are more prosperous.

The key to the book is Rusk's argument that it is not possible for counties to ignore the problems of their largest cities, unless they want to face the consequences.

Those consequences include the creation of fewer jobs, in part because the work force isn't as well-educated as it needs to be for today's occupations.

Hagerstown's boundaries aren't like a dam, holding its problems in, but like a sieve, through which the problems leak, diluting the county's strengths.

It's been more than three years since Judge Fred Thayer ruled that unless there was a previous agreement requiring the city to provide utility service to an area of the county, the city could require developers to sign pre-annexation agreements.

The issue still isn't resolved, because the county has refused to yield on revenue sharing. Without that, the city won't budge on its pre-annexation policy, which means that every new development in the county's Hunt Valley area could still be held up.

For those of us required to pay attention to these matters, is is disheartening to see that after 30 years, too many city and county officials still seem to be thinking about "us and them" - and who might gain the upper hand - versus looking at how they might work together for the benefit of all local citizens.

How could they start?

I suggest that the two governments study how they could merge their permits and inspections departments without skimping on service to either city or county residents.

Metzner is correct that such a merger will yield less savings than creating a countywide police department.

But back in 2003, when I wrote a series of stories about cities and counties that had studied consolidating - some successfully, some not - those involved told me that police mergers are often the toughest to accomplish.

I suspect that's because no elected official who gets a late-night call from a constituent about a noisy party or drug dealers on the corner wants to be in the position of saying that there's no one he or she can call to get some action.

Try permits and inspections first. If that works, then tackle government's more complicated functions.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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