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Track will cost you if you don't take a stand

August 31, 2008|By TERRY HEADLEE

This is my last column for The Herald-Mail.

I will be leaving the company Thursday to take another editor position at a Maryland newspaper.

It was a tough call for me, but there comes a time when moving on and tackling a new challenge can be exciting and invigorating.

So I thought I would spend some of this time recounting a few of the more meaningful experiences I've had during the past 22 years in Hagerstown.

The newsroom is filled with top-notch professionals and the Hagerstown community is a terrific place to work.

I have so many people to thank at The Herald-Mail as well as many friends and sources that have come in and out of my life as a reporter and editor.

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But then I picked up our Friday paper and read the headline: "NCAA-approved track at North could cost more than $850,000."

The story said the Washington County Board of Education is to decide at an upcoming meeting on whether to spend the money on the track at North Hagerstown High School.

So I pondered this for about a second and came to the conclusion that this is a more important and meaningful way to spend my last few minutes with you.

If you're keeping track of this ongoing story, the latest bid is now $100,000 more than previous estimates to redo the track.

Think it can't get worse?

Well, sure it can.

In April, we reported that renovation construction on the Washington County Courthouse was turning into a bottomless pit. That project has ballooned from $4.2 million to nearly $7 million, including 71 change orders that added more than $650,000 to the original construction contract.

Or remember the ice rink out at the Hagerstown Fairgrounds. Taxpayers initially helped pay for the rink that opened up about 11 years ago.

The "loan" was to be paid back by the nonprofit foundation. It wasn't. And the rink was supposed to be self-supporting so taxpayers wouldn't be stuck paying daily operating expenses, such as electricity. The truth is that some of the annual subsidies in past years have cost you more than $100,000.

I mention the courthouse and the ice rink because there are lessons to be learned with both of these.

The first is that even with good planning, there are unforeseen circumstances that can drive up costs, as the Washington County Commissioners learned the hard way with the courthouse.

The ice rink proves that public-private partnerships - while undertaken with the best of intentions - leave much to be desired. Often, the result is that taxpayers wind up picking up some of the tab - as in the case with Mike Callas Stadium and now the stadium's track.

As I mentioned in a previous column, there really is no good reason to waste up to $850,000 to build a college-level track at the high school. Not when students are being taught at some schools in portable classrooms.

The original contractor has said he can bring it up to a high-school level track in less than a week - we assume at no additional cost.

And what's so bad about that?

Sure the school board will have to refund the $50,000 to local running enthusiasts who chipped in money to make it a college-level track. But maybe it could be use as a base to start off a fundraising campaign for the remaining $800,000.

And since the school board has been less than candid about how this fiasco occurred, they shouldn't be sticking it to the taxpayers to fix their mistake - not in this economy.

I'm not sure how this is going to turn out, but one thing is certain: If you don't speak up soon, a large chunk of your tax dollars will be wasted on a nice, but unnecessary track.

I thought you would like a final heads-up from a guy who always has cared a lot about how taxpayer money is spent.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached until Thursday at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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