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Is Del. Donoghue ready for a fight?

April 08, 2007

As the only Washington County Democrat in a state legislature dominated by them, Del. John Donoghue could throw his weight around a lot more than he does.

But that never seemed to be his style. Until now.

When the Washington County Health System asked for a bill to make it more difficult to appeal future health-care facility zoning decisions, some lawmakers assumed it would be a delegation bill.

Instead, Donoghue filed the bill on his own and a few other members of the delegation, miffed by his action, decided they wouldn't go along.

Then, at the request of Mayor Robert Bruchey, Donoghue filed a bill to force the county government to share more of the revenue it collects, particularly what it collects inside the city limits.

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Again, the other members of the delegation were irritated by this breach of legislative decorum. For his part, Donoghue said he and the mayor didn't expect the bill to pass.

"It was just to begin the discussion," he said.

Certainly there needs to be a discussion, if only to confirm Commissioner Jame Kercheval's assertion earlier this year that the city isn't entitled to any additional money.

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.

Kercheval's analysis would be easier to endorse if all of the residents of Washington County - inside and outside the city limits - made comparable incomes.

Nobody is making that argument. According to U.S. Census statistics, the county's median household income in 2003 was $43,829, while in 1999, the city's was $30,796.

Because of the difference in survey dates, there's a little bit of apples and oranges in this discussion. But in 1999, the city had 18 percent of its residents below the federal poverty line and in 2003, the county had about 8 percent.

In short, what we have is a concentration of poverty. Just ask officials at Community Rescue Service about the percentage of in-city calls they can't be reimbursed for because those they transport have no insurance. It follows, then, that the city government might need a little more help because it serves citizens who have fewer resources than their county counterparts.

Commissioner Kristin Aleshire, a former member of the city council, said that Donoghue's bill "only serves to break down the effort at cooperation."

I respect Aleshire's intelligence and his work ethic, but question if there has been a real discussion on revenue sharing. From where I sit, the city's revenue-sharing discussions with the county resemble a child's discussion with a parent about getting a larger allowance. In both cases, those with the money are firmly in control and unlikely to yield more than they want to.

The city's only recourse is to threaten to wreck the train by enforcing pre-annexation agreements on new industries. Without the agreement on this topic that the county didn't get when it went to court, all new projects in certain areas of the county are at risk.

Now, the $64,000 question: Is Donog-hue ready to play hardball with his fellow delegation members?

They can certainly prevent his bills from passing, but as a member of the majority party, he can make mischief if he so chooses. If Donoghue announced he would oppose every other local bill until a revenue-sharing agreement was reached, would other members of the delegation yield or would they resist?

It's hard to say. One can argue that the zoning bill sought by the hospital would have been thrown out on constitutional grounds, but its purpose - to get a needed project on the road - was good one.

If those members who didn't oppose the bill's concept believed in that end, they should have swallowed Donoghue's breach of etiquette and backed the bill.

I'd like to see Donoghue throw down the gauntlet and try to force the county commissioners to really negotiate on revenue sharing, as opposed to the happy-talk 2-plus-2 committee discussions in which it's assumed progress is being made because the two governments are not suing each other.

Let's tell the truth: The county commissioners have for too long treated the city like a poor relation, not because it was right, but because they could. Donoghue, whose district is the city, should tell the bullies that they're going to have to begin treating the city as a partner, as opposed to an adversary. And it would help if someone besides me told Donoghue it was the right thing to do.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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