“What can the county do to help…?” Hancock officials ask commissioners to assist with town challenges

by Kate Shunney

Hancock town officials weren’t shy about handing Washington County Commissioners a list of requests for money, help and creative solutions during last Tuesday’s commission meeting at the Hancock Town Hall.

County officials travel to the municipalities each year to hold business meetings, hear about local concerns and check in with elected town council members about common issues.

Hancock Town Manager Mike Faith speaks to county staff at a commission meeting in Hancock on July 25 while Mayor Roland Lanehart, Jr., councilman David Kerns and councilman Josh McCusker look on. In the background are Washington County Commissioners.

On July 25, commissioners stayed in Hancock for roughly an hour. Only one resident addressed them, but three Hancock councilman and Town Manager Mike Faith kept the five commissioners busy with local issues.

Mayor Roland Lanehart Jr. thanked the county officials for bringing their meeting to Hancock, and then asked what happened to a large earmark for Hancock that was supposed to come from Project Open Space several years ago.

Commissioner Wayne Keefer, who lives in Hancock, said he had looked into the 2017 promise of funding for a Kirkwood Park project. Keefer said the Project Open Space funding was supposed to be “six figures” but Hancock had approached the county for reimbursement for project, and that’s not how the program funding works.

Moving into the future, Project Open Space funding is available if Hancock applies for it.

“I think it’s time Hancock gets money for the splash-pad,” said Keefer.

Mike Faith said the town has $200,000 in funding for the water feature in town. Councilman David Kerns said the cost projections for a splash pad are around $450,000.

Commissioner Derek Harvey asked fellow county officials how they could help with projects like that for the municipalities, since Hancock, Smithsburg and Boonsboro are all looking at adding splash pads or public water park items.

Harvey asked if the county could help by consolidating design and contracts at the county level and reduce the cost and process for each town government.

“That’s the kind of thing we should be thinking about,” said Commissioner Harvey.

Mike Faith briefed county officials on progress running an 8-inch water service to the area of the Hancock truck plaza.

Right now, BFS and its restaurants at that location are operating at less than 100% capacity because they lack the water for full fire suppression, said Faith.

Providing an 8-inch water service to the plaza would allow the IHOP to open both dining rooms, for example. Right now, it can only operate at roughly 65% capacity because of Fire Marshal occupancy limits based on the facility’s sprinkler capacity.

Faith said the BFS management have said they are pleased with the Hancock location and operation and have had no trouble finding employees for the convenience store, gas station and associated restaurants.

BFS has signed a pre-annexation agreement with the town, Faith reported. Once the connection to town water supply is done and annexation steps are complete, that eastern end of Hancock will stand within town limits.

“That’s a big win for the taxpayers of Hancock,” Faith said.

Staying on the topic of town infrastructure, Faith told commissioners that operating the water and wastewater systems is expensive and complicated, and the town is trying to keep water and sewer rates from rising. For example, the town pays $1,500 in environmental testing to meet state regulations.

“What can the county do to help facilitate or help with common issues?” Faith asked.

“Water is an issue across the board,” said Commissioner Harvey.

He proposed the county could provide leadership on upcoming regulator issues, enter into agreements with municipalities to take on some tasks, or “scale on prices” for necessary chemicals.

Faith said once Hancock’s upgraded water and wastewater systems are in place, the town will need two licensed operators on staff to do the necessary tasks to run the systems.

Commissioner Keefer said delays in upgrading the systems would have an impact on economic development.

“If Hancock could land a large manufacturer, you probably couldn’t offer them the capacity on the system,” he said.

Each town in Washington County has a slightly different arrangement for the ownership and operation of their water and wastewater systems, commissioners said.

Hancock Councilman David Kerns told commissioners one of his “biggest pet peeves” was the work involved in attracting and keeping police officers for a small-town force like Hancock’s.

“We can’t offer them the retirement the county can offer them,” Kerns said.

Hancock Mayor Roland Lanehart, Jr. speaks with a Washington County staff member.

He asked if it would be possible to set up an agreement with the county to put Hancock town officers in their retirement benefit system.

“Upwards of 60% of police calls are outside our jurisdiction and we’re not getting anything for it,” said Mayor Lanehart.

“Hancock PD ran a domestic and it was 47 minutes before a deputy came,” he said.

Lanehart said he asked the sheriff if he could provide an 8-hour shift coverage in Hancock and was told the county could send an officer, but they would bill Hancock for the overtime costs.

Commissioners Harvey said the county would have to ask Sheriff Albert what the impact would be on his retirement system and budget if town officers were folded into his pool of employees.

“It sounds like a dream come true, but I know there’s more to the story,” said Commissioner Wagoner. “I’d be willing to hear it from the staff.”

Commissioner Jeff Cline suggested they get details from finance advisors and actuaries to see what was possible.

The county’s attorney warned that the federal government strictly oversees employee pension plans and any move would have to be vetted under applicable laws.

Town Manager Mike Faith said Hancock wants to hang onto its police department.

“We have broad community support for the police department. If we let the department go, we’d never get it back,” he said.

Commissioner Keefer proposed the commission ask for a report from their staff within 60 days of the possible impacts and legalities of extending retirement benefits to Washington County municipalities.

In other county/town partnerships, Hancock officials asked why town public works crews can’t drop off a bag of trash at the waste transfer station on Sensel Road.

“If one of my public works employees takes a bag of trash to Hancock, they can’t do it. They have to take it to 40 West and pay the full tipping fee,” said Mayor Lanehart.

The county operates the transfer station on six acres owned by the town.

Keefer explained that the county assumed the closure costs for the landfill that operated on that property, and post-landfill maintenance is expensive.

“I’m appreciative the local people can take their bags there, and I would like the town to be able to do that,” said Lanehart.

Commissioners said they thought that agreement could be spelled out.

The mayor asked about the use and costs related to another shared property – Hancock’s library. Hancock town employees mow the grass and plow snow around the library, and Lanehart asked if that was the case for every county library located in a municipality.

Commission President John Barr said there is an agreement between the town and county for each library location and they are all the same.

Commissioner Harvey asked if the town knew the total cost for that maintenance and Lanehart didn’t know.

“I think it would be nice if there was parity between the municipalities,” said Keefer. He thought Hancock had specifically agreed to take on that maintenance in order to ensure the library was in the park area rather than another location in town.

Washington County Commissioner Wayne Keefer speaks at the July 25 commission meeting in Hancock Town Hall.

Councilman Josh McCusker asked commissioners if Hancock might be in line for an Early Voting Center in the future.

“All centers are in the east – could there be one out here?” he asked.

Commissioner Harvey said he supports the idea, whether the center was put in Hancock or Big Pool or Boonsboro.

He noted that one of two centers in Hagerstown – the one at the library – wasn’t used much. The county must have two early voting centers unless the county voter roll goes over 100,000 residents, when a third center must be added.

“We think the people of Hancock would be well served by it, and it would attract people from Big Pool and Clear Spring,” said Mike Faith.

In other topics, Commissioner Harvey asked how the C&O Canal was being taken care of in Hancock.

“Not well,” said Councilman McCusker. He said there are lots of weeds and trees in the sections east and west of town.

Faith said he’d asked the National Park Service to use a machine to clean out the canal but that hasn’t happened.

“To get it cleaned up – is that something you’d like?” asked Commissioner Harvey.

“Absolutely,” the Hancock officials replied.

Commissioner Barr suggested he could arrange a face to face meeting with the National Park Service and Hancock officials.

“The National Park Service wants our cooperation to expand some projects. They’ve got some things we’d like, so it might be time to negotiate,” said Barr.

Hancock citizen Ashley McCusker asked county officials if their promise to spend some county money on Hancock school improvements was going forward.

McCusker was told that Hancock Elementary is getting a new roof this summer.

Washington County’s Board of Commissioners held their July 25 evening meeting at Hancock Town Hall. Commissioners, from left, are Randall Wagoner, Jeff Cline, John Barr, Derek Harvey and Wayne Keefer. County attorney Kirk Downey is seated to the far right.