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Adding to the commissioners' 'miss list'

August 31, 2008|By Joe Lane

Here we go again. Recently the Washington County Commissioners voted to give $75,000 to a consultant (lobbyist?) who will tell us that a garbage incinerator is the solution to our landfill problems.

Not just any garbage incinerator, but a "waste to energy" incinerator. Throw in your trash and out comes free energy. It sounds too good to be true because it is too good to be true.

One of these facilities will require tens or even hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build. Some counties have been forced to import trash to pay for the incinerator when trash volume failed to meet projections (probably because of recycling).

Counties have been forced to give up recycling because the incinerator needs the fuel (plastic has high fuel value). Just as important, burning trash creates toxic byproducts.

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The solution to the landfill problem is increasing tipping fees and recycling. Bargain tipping fees at our landfill have encouraged waste and discouraged recycling.

This is why the landfill is running out of space. Many communities have solved this problem without building an incinerator. Paying a consultant to justify building an incinerator is a waste of tax dollars that can only lead to a larger scale waste of tax dollars.

And speaking of consultants, the airport study is one piece of history we can't afford to forget. According to that study, the $80 million dollar, taxpayer-funded, expansion of the airport was a slam-dunk, a sure-thing, a win-win proposition.

Ignoring the overwhelming sentiment of county residents, as well as common sense, the commissioners voted 3-2 and began flushing tax dollars down the airport ($20 million local, $60 million state and federal).

Tragically, this colossal waste of tax dollars was followed by years of local, state and federal officials, Democrat and Republican alike, standing proudly at press conference after press conference, announcing yet another plan to throw millions more good tax dollars after bad. Now, in what I hope will be the final insult, the airport plans to destroy a historic farmstead for the security of the nonexistent air traffic.

Bad decisions have consequences. The $20 million local tax dollars diverted to the airport project could have been spent on much-needed school construction. This year, Washington County schools will be forced to use more than 75 portable classrooms. The commissioners continue to allow new development in crowded school districts. The commissioners continue to approve new plans while refusing to charge developers for the impact. Recently renovated South Hagerstown High School is now host to the county's largest educational trailer park. The county is further behind than ever in school construction and has a record level of debt.

Washington County's cell phone tower policy is yet another ongoing betrayal of the public good for the benefit of a few powerful companies. At this point, nearly every vista outside of Antietam Battlefield is marred by this unnecessary blight. As you pass Smithsburg on Md. 64, you can see four of them without turning your head. Coming in to Boonsboro, the towers are so close to each other that if one fell over it would smash into the next one.

If the commissioners wanted to preserve the natural beauty of this county and spread wealth among the citizens of the county, they could require, as other communities do, that these facilities be placed on existing structures. This way, every farmer with a silo and every church with a steeple could have a share of this lucrative pie. How lucrative? A busy tower will generate revenue of $4,000 to $6,000 per day! They are so profitable that every company wants one of their own. These companies must love Washington County. Where else would a local government sacrifice its scenic beauty and demand nothing in return? The way this county has handled its cell tower policy leaves it with little credibility regarding the emergency communications tower in South County.

It seems clear that the county commissioners do not want the citizens to see how they do business. For several years, local groups have been urging the commissioners to televise their meetings. The Hagerstown City Council currently does this. These requests have been met with every manner of foot dragging and lame excuses.

The latest excuse is that it will cost more than $1 million. This excuse is laughable. The commissioners recently purchased an emergency communications system. The $20 million system includes building 10 giant towers, as well as upgrading equipment for every police officer, police car, police station, firefighter, firehouse, hospital and ambulance crew in the entire county.

How could you possibly spend a million dollars to wire five guys in the same room?

Still, a million dollars would be a small price to pay if it could prevent another multi-million-dollar bailout of a well-connected developer, or another airport expansion or a garbage incinerator boondoggle. Given some of the decisions these commissioners have made, it is easy to understand why they are reluctant to be televised. It is time for some light to be shed on the dealings of the Washington County Commissioners.

Joe Lane is a Smithsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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