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Wishing won't end fight between city and county

December 18, 2007

Following a contentious meeting during which Hagerstown Councilman Lewis Metzner scolded Washington County's General Assembly delegation for not doing enough to encourage local revenue sharing, Commissioners President John Barr asked for a more peaceful approach.

Barr said the commissioners and the city council must have additional discussions on the disputed matters.

"The finger-pointing and disappointing comments have to stop," Barr said.

Memo to Barr: The polite approach hasn't worked so far, so why should council members continue to waste their time on it?

It's time for the delegation's members to get involved, or admit to citizens that they're not interested in refereeing this fight - no matter what ill effects will result from their lack of involvement.

The delegation's members have been on the sidelines for a while, going back (at least) to their unwillingness to try to head off a court battle over the city's annexation police.

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It's been three years since the commissioners and the city council agreed to work on some longstanding issues, including taxes, development, water and sewer connections and annexation.

A previous board of commissioners rejected a proposed city settlement on the annexation policy and went to court instead.

The result was not the resounding victory the commissioners had hoped for. The judge ruled that the city government couldn't requireannexation in areas it had previously agreed to provide service to.

However, in areas where there was no agreement for the city to provide service, the judge ruled Hagerstown was free to require a pre-annexation agreement before hooking anyone up.

Developers who didn't like that, the judge ruled, were free to look elsewhere.

As a result, every time a company wants to locate in the Hopewell Valley area, the city government must waive the agreement or the county must tell the prospect that there is a chance, sometime in the future, that the firm might have to pay city taxes.

The fact that the tax requirement isn't a sure thing is not what most business leaders want to hear. Before they sign on the dotted line, they want to know, with some degree of certainty, what their future costs will be.

That's one problem. Another is that the commissioners have resisted changes in the city-county revenue-sharing agreement, based on the Commissioner James Kercheval's calculations.

In a city-county meeting in February, 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.

The county government has also rejected proposals to share a greater share of the hotel/motel tax, 40 percent of which is generated in the city, or to stop using general fund money paid by city residents to subsidize some county residents' sewer rates.

To all of these proposals, the county government has offered no logical reason for treating the city as a poor relation. The county government does what it does, not because it's right, but because it can. If Barr doesn't want the delegation involved, he needs to get more involved himself.

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