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'Dead as a doornail'

"It's as dead as a doornail" is how Michael Foreman describes the status of the effort to unify Winchester and Frederick County.

Foreman, the former clerk of Winchester Circuit Court, was chairman of a steering committee that coordinated dozens of citizens who worked more than two years on various subcommittees examining how to consolidate the functions of the city and county governments. The panel presented its report in April 2007 with the unanimous recommendation that the two localities be unified.

Little, if anything, has happened since, and one of the strongest proponents, former City Council President Charles Gaynor, has left the council. "This thing cannot be dropped," Gaynor told the council in February when he and Foreman briefed its new members on the issue. "So many people have put so much work into it."

That appears to be exactly what has happened, even though city and county officials have expressed a willingness to talk about it. But then county officials rebuffed a proposal to merge 911 systems and the city and county have been unable to work out joint funding for something as basic as the downtown detox center.

Foreman sees an increasingly grim future for Winchester as more commercial development takes place in Frederick County, filling county tax coffers rather than the city's, and its population skews to lower-income families and senior citizens on fixed incomes. At the same time, the city's debt load is growing with various infrastructure projects, meaning higher taxes and water and sewer rates.

Unification would head off some of these outcomes and the county would also benefit from streamlined government and urban services. But some elected officials would have to sacrifice their own political hides in consolidation, and that doesn't appear likely to happen.

"It's very discouraging," Foreman said.


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