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CHIEF saving taxpayers' money by sharing costs of project

February 23, 2012

Bidding out public projects accomplishes two things. It helps assure taxpayers get the best deal, and it prevents contracts from being awarded to those who might be friendly with an elected board, giving all contractors an equal shot.

We have always been reluctant to accept any excuse for skirting public bids, no matter how innocent it might appear on the surface. Circumventing the bidding process is simply a bad habit to get into. As such, we have no criticism of Washington County Commissioners Terry Baker and Jeff Cline, who balked at a deal with a private industrial foundation that splits the costs of a road project off Robinwood Drive.

The one-mile road project extends Yale Drive past Meritus Medical Center and on to Hagerstown Community College. It’s part of a grand design to open landlocked property behind the college for economic development.

Under the deal that was ultimately approved by the county on a 3-2 vote, the economic-development agency CHIEF will pay for the design and engineering of the road, while the county pays for the actual construction. The construction phase will be bid, but the design phase will not. Further obfuscating the process, the county and CHIEF will engage in a complex deal in which engineering and stormwater management monies will effectively be commingled, meaning CHIEF will not, in reality, be responsible for the full design costs.

It is not outrageous to think of the road as a county project, and to argue, as Baker and Cline do, that the phases of the road are inseparable — and as such, that all contractors should have an equal shot at all the work.

But we do not take this side. The important fact to consider, and one that is frequently lost in the shuffle, is that CHIEF is a private entity. It might have the public’s interests at heart, but it makes its money developing industrial parks.

Viewing CHIEF in its true light changes the discussion.

It is CHIEF that owns and is developing much of the land in question. And CHIEF is stepping forward and properly volunteering to pay a share of the project cost.

Forget CHIEF for a moment, and pretend the property were being improved by the private developer of your choice. All too often, these private developers have wanted the county to pay full freight for infrastructure that will benefit their bottom line at the expense of county taxpayers.

But most of the time, in order to win approval for their projects, these private developers will be made to pay for some segment of roads, sewers, drainage or what have you. We would not expect the private developer to be subject to the bidding process, even if he or she later turns over the assets to the county.

With or without CHIEF in the picture, Yale Drive must be extended, to alleviate traffic congestion if nothing else. So CHIEF is essentially saving the taxpayers a fair sum of money by sharing the costs.

This would more than satisfy the first half of the public-bid rationale. As for all contractors having an equal shot, if CHIEF succeeds in developing this property as envisioned, there will be much more work for contractors beyond a small engineering study.

This is not intended as encouragement for finding creative ways to dodge public bids, but the county’s decision is best for the taxpayers and consistent with the way any other development would be treated in this county. By voting in favor, it is Commissioners John Barr, Ruth Anne Callaham and Bill McKinley who in this matter are on the side of both the taxpayers and on the side of future jobs that this project will create.

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