Before we can vote for a route, we need to know the destination

February 18, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Road maps are excellent tools, but they aren't much use if you don't know the destination.

Such was the case was charter home rule. We were being asked to get on a highway, with little idea where that route would take us. Supporters naturally focused on the process, not the result.

That opened the door for opponents to say the two little words that, in Washington County, spell game, set and match: Higher taxes.

In any year that's a bad thing, but with the outrage over property-tax appraisals and fears of a recession, this fight was over well before it started.


Opponents said that if you pass home rule it will lead to higher taxes. Proponents said, if you pass home rule it will lead to -- what? More local control? Local control of what? Less reliance on Annapolis? Less reliance for what?

The examples voters were treated to -- changes in the plumbing code or laws against parking trucks on public streets -- didn't really mean anything to anyone.

The overall message was that each year we send a bunch of meaningless stuff to Annapolis for approval and we shouldn't have to. Well, no we shouldn't. But the key word for the public was "meaningless."

Put up against the specter of higher taxation, proponents really had no ammunition -- and the vote reflected it.

Still, this vote wasn't wasted; it was an excellent learning opportunity. If we are to have home rule, we need to offer a clear benefit -- a destination.

The overriding problem is that we, as a county, have never agreed upon a destination. We're not entirely sure what we want to be.

Economically, we've really had no answer for the loss or downsizing of Fairchild and Mack. We're just now starting to realize the importance of education. We want to grow, but not like Montgomery County. We like the idea of tourism and the arts, but we still have our suspicions.

We want to retain our rural setting, but don't want to be told that we can't sell our land to a housing developer. We don't like the newcomers, but we do like their business.

A new form of government isn't going to help if we don't know, clearly, where we're going.

So, as if they haven't done enough work already, the next job for those who desire better government is to sort out some definitions. And the answers aren't going to come solely from chamber mixers or government symposiums.

The answers will also have to come from country churches, rod and gun clubs, senior apartment buildings, school organizations, farm bureaus, groups that want controlled growth and groups that want to protect property rights. Once the answers are apparent, the charter will need to be written to reflect these answers.

If taxation is a major concern, write a charter that limits taxation. If sprawl is a concern, write a charter that makes it easier for property owners to contest an undesirable land use. If property rights are a concern, create an avenue for addressing the issue of farmland compensation, should zoning reduce land values.

Now the uncomfortable part. This is going to take some honesty from some quarters that in the past have wished to have it both ways.

Public policy has its causes and effects. It's unfair to say, "I want lower taxes and better schools," or "I want lower taxes and I want to be compensated for lost land value."

It's unfair to say, "I want to be able to build a big new house in the country, but I don't want anyone moving in next to me to spoil the view." It's wrong to say, "I want to shop at Costco, but it needs to be built in someone else's neighborhood."

Some, of course, will not want answers. If absolutely every card, every financial benefit, doesn't fall their way, they will oppose a charter based on whatever reason they can scrape together.

And that may be the bigger challenge to better government, because it involves changing a mindset.

We all -- and I am just as guilty as the next guy -- will ask, how does this affect me, when we ought to be asking, how does this affect everyone? I might be quite willing to pay more tax for a new baseball stadium. But I need to think, what of the senior on fixed income? And in the end, I may have to acknowledge that a tax hike to pay for a ball park will hurt more people than it helps.

All of us can benefit from the realization that we are not the only person in this county. We should consider others. There is biblical precedent for this. Look it up.

Once in place, charter home rule is more conducive to addressing the needs and wants of more people in Washington County than is presently the case. But before we get to that place, we'll have to ascertain what those needs and wants are. Some are common knowledge, but some may come as a surprise.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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