With a new administrator at the helm,it's a good time for proactive policy

March 04, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Greg and Debra Murray are two respectable Washington County public servants whom you may or may not have heard of before this week when Greg Murray was named to the position of county administrator.

Prior, he was in charge of the county's sanitary department. Debra handles the county's finances.

The two are married. So when Murray's appointment was handed down, naturally there were some eyebrows raised with concerns of such close ties between two of the county's top offices. You have the man handling the county's joystick mated to the county's budget guru.

Bad? Not at all.

Not unless someone burns the toast, at least.

The Curies worked well enough together, and there's no reason to think these two won't be greater than the sum of the parts.

Greg Murray, you may recall, had the pleasure of taking over the county's sewer department when it was wracked with debt, courtesy of a commission that correctly anticipated growth but incorrectly reckoned that rates didn't need to correspond to the costs of expansion.


He's done a solid job, as has Debra, who was also a straight-shooter about the sewer department numbers, unpleasant as they may have been.

A tip of the hat too goes to outgoing administrator Rod Shoop, who, with the help of the legislature did get the department on the right course, although it has unfairly cost the residents of Hagerstown proper.

Shoop's legacy will contain two other significant items, one positive, one undetermined. He's been a good steward of county money, and can point to a $30 million reserve fund that will serve the county well in the event of hard times. With this week's stock market plunge and talk of recession, this is quite a decent safety net.

He will also be remembered for the runway extension at the Hagerstown airport. Perhaps this will pan out in the long run, although heady talk of Hagerstown as a hub for regional passenger jet service has been placed on the back burner.

Shoop has been good to education. It will be remembered that under his watch the school system's budget was fully funded for the first time in maybe forever.

Still, Murray is not short of areas in which we can improve.

Perhaps someday, maybe in our lifetime, the county's fire and rescue system will be properly financed and organized. We've been talking about it for 20 years. Might be about time.

More significant, perhaps, is that under Shoop, the county seemed to be looking for excuses to pick a fight with the city of Hagerstown. The two even fought each other - with no clear winner - in court, for some reason that no one can remember.

Hagerstown is part of Washington County, not separate from it. The city deserves a fair shake. Or more than a fair shake. Governments typically send resources to spots and people who are in need. That means taking some of the county's wealth and distributing it where it's most needed - the city.

It's a win all the way around. Counties are defined by the city that is its seat. Washington County can't succeed without the city of Hagerstown being the bell cow.

Finally, it will be up to Murray and the commissioners to decide what we are to become. The county's track record on growth is terribly inconsistent. Some developments that should have been allowed were not, while some that shouldn't, were.

It looks bad when a quarry is allowed to expand into a residential area, but a residential area is not allowed to expand into an area for which growth is planned.

The county's recent building moratorium and zoning-law rewrite dragged on for way too long, and left some important issues, such as farmland compensation, unresolved.

In fact, efficient and decisive action may be the one area where Murray can make the most improvement. Over the past decade, there's been far too much government by paralysis.

From emergency services, to growth policy, to the baseball stadium, to the fiasco that was the Robinwood Bypass, little - save for the airport runway - has moved with any sense of urgency, if it's gotten done at all.

Part of this may have been a hangover from the sewer-debt situation of the mid-'90s, which left the local government gun-shy toward ambitious agendas.

With the city and county facing changes that are simultaneously exciting and frightening, it would appear that future inaction will have consequences. If we don't define what we want the county to be, it will be defined for us.

With a new commission and a new face in the administrator's office, this is a good time to plot a meaningful and proactive course.

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