A problem to solve, a councilmember worth keeping

January 15, 1997


Herald-Mail editorial page editor

If yesterday's revelation that the City of Hagerstown owes $9.96 million to the Maryland pension system has a familiar ring, it's because the state officials told the city much the same thing in April of 1981.

At the time, Maryland officials said that during the 1970s, an actuarial firm hired by the state had miscalculated the amount that should have been paid into the state pension fund. The city's share of the $5.2 billion underpayment was then listed at $7 million.

Had the state pushed the city to begin making payments immediately, the mayor and council would would have been forced to hike property taxes immediately by 25 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The city, led by then-mayor Don Frush, resisted starting repayments for five years. During that time, Frush enlisted a citzen panel of financial experts and searched through years of records in an effort to find something that would reduce the city's liability.


In the end, it was then-Del. Paul Muldowney who came to the rescue, by working out a repayment plan that reduced annual repayments from $725,000 to $180,000 annually for five years, then $140,000 for 30 years. After that, payments would be figured as a percentage of payroll. (Remember that that amount took care of the unfunded liability, not ongoing expenses, which were also due.)

So why didn't that fix work? City officials say state pension personnel who've spoken to the council said that the 1984 agreement didn't fix everything that was broken. That's a conclusion sure to be disputed by Muldowney, whose sponsorship of pension reform cost him his political career, and the area its most effective (if not its most beloved) lawmaker.

Part of the problem may be the legislative tinkering that took place in 1990. In 1993 The Associated Press reported that a special pension bill designed to aid one deputy sheriff (at a cost of $344,300) had instead resulted in 2,000 employees filing claims. The estimated cost over 30 years: $50 million.

The bottom line: The city cannot accept this latest bill without a lot of questions about the numbers behind it, and whether this is the fix that will finally work.

* * *

On Friday, Dec. 20, this newspaper reported on tax problems faced by Saum's Jewelers, a 100-year-old business in downtown Hagerstown. The story was news because the business is now headed by Susan Saum-Wicklein, a member of the Hagerstown City Council.

Because of the story, Saum-Wicklein is now considering not running in the next city election. That would be a shame, for several reasons.

On any city council, there are members who can't see beyond next week's council meeting. If the city's bills are paid and the treasury is such that the tax rate might be shaved by a penny or two, they're happy and confident that they've done their jobs.

There's nothing wrong with that outlook, provided that there are some other members who have some vision. People with vision work on ways to improve things for the future, even though they might not be around to reap the glory.

Saum-Wicklein has vision. She spearheaded the drive to bring the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites to downtown, to create the re-enactment of the Ransom of Hagerstown and to revamp the county's tourism department. Like no other local official locally, she recognizes that tourism development is economic development that brings in dollars and creates jobs without requiring expensive outlays for sewer and water line extensions.

Saum-Wicklein also knows that city officials have an obligation to explain their actions and respond to public criticism of how they handle their official duties. She's come to my office several times to explain the fine points of one issue or another, not because I'm incapable of doing reserach, but because she wanted to make sure that the people writing commentary here get it right the first time around.

She also made at least one visit to argue against continued criticism of the city employees involved in the flooding of the city's Potomac River water-treatment plant. They have feelings, she said, and have been punished enough.

Now whether or not you agree with that point of view, you should be aware that there are other elected officials in this area who are very happy to play "pin the tail on the donkey" when some government employee fouls up.

Taxes due must be paid, of course, but to think Saum's Jeweler's is the only local business that's hit a rough stretch is naive. Small jewelers, fighting big stores and catalog showrooms like Best, have it rough everywhere. Saum-Wicklein might even argue (though she has not done so to date) that the whole thing might never have happened if she'd devoted her full energy to the family business instead of city business.

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