City-county merger plans - in Virginia

February 11, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

When elected officials at a recent joint meeting of the Hagerstown Mayor and Council and the Washington County Commissioners began talking again - how seriously is another question - about merging some departments, I decided to check up on two nearby governments that have had a lot of success in that area.

I'm referring to Winchester and Frederick County, Va., which put the idea on the ballot way back in 1968. It was defeated then, but since then the two have managed to work together to build an 85,000-square foot judicial center, a joint sewer-treatment plant, a jointly operated landfill and, with Clarke County's participation, a regional jail.

So I was told by Mike Foreman, chairman of the steering committee for what they are calling a unification study effort.

Foreman is not some starry-eyed reformer just out of graduate school, but a 66-year-old Winchester native who is a former schoolteacher, city council member and Clerk of the Courts for 28 years.


He's also president of the historical society and described how the city and county decided, over the years, that it made more sense to work together than to fight.

That history is fascinating, in part because it is in sharp contrast to that of Washington County, where for too long city and county leaders have concentrated on who has the upper hand.

But first, perhaps the smartest decision the steering committee made was in how they instructed the subcommittees that studied everything from police to social services to water supply.

Instead of asking panel members to determine whether a merger of governments should take place, they were told instead to consider how the departments under study would function if the governments merged.

Whether a merger will happen is a political decision that Foreman said voters will ultimately make.

The genius of this method is that before they vote, citizens will have access to detailed information about how a merged government would work.

But even if they reject a merger, they will have a blueprint for how the two governments could work together to provide better service and save taxpayer money.

Now for some history. According to Foreman, Virginia is the last state in which cities and counties are totally separate governments. For example, Winchester and Frederick County each have their own school systems.

As the population grew - and the suburbs, too - those on the city's fringe began seeking municipal services. In Winchester, many in that suburban ring received them, but unlike our system, you either pay taxes to the city or the county.

After the 1968 election rejected the merger idea - county voters were 4-to--1 against it, Foreman said - the city filed an annexation suit.

As opposed to Maryland law, residents don't get a vote. A three-judge panel decided that because the city was providing services, those properties should be annexed.

Property taxes went up, Foreman said, but just as Hagerstown does, Winchester charged county residents more for city services andutility bills went down for annexed properties. And because Winchester had a paid fire department, insurance costs fell, too.

Many in the county were stung by this defeat and the loss of revenue, Foreman said, but when it came time to replace the 1840 courthouse, the two who led the respective governments - Mayor Stewart Bell and County Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Koontz - decided cooperation made sense.

Foreman said the project worked in large part because the two were personal friends and not at all ordinary politicians.

"They were so atypical, both quiet, soft-spoken people - two real gentlemen," he said.

The two governments also cooperated in the late 1980s when a new sewage treatment plant was needed and again when the Environmental Protection Agency put together regulations on landfill operations.

In 1995, the two governments, joined by Clarke County, built a regional jail and work-release center.

"Again, it saved both money," Foreman said.

And again, the cordial relationship between the heads of the two governments - Mayor Elizabeth Helm and Supervisors Chairman Richard Dick - was a key to progress, Foreman said.

If this sounds as if I'm sugar-coating what happened there, that's not my intent. Sometimes, as in the case of a study effort called the 2020 Report, suggestions were made, read by local officials and then stuck on the shelf for a while.

But slowly, over more than 30 years, forward steps took place. But despite that, Foreman said it's far from clear what will happen next. For instance, Winchester has the only privately endowed school system in the state and proceeds of that fund have been used to increase teacher salaries above what the county pays.

If a merger takes place, Foreman said, state law mandates that teacher salaries go to the higher level. For the county, with three high schools to the city's one, that could be costly.

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