"Actually, when you compare it with last year, you look pretty steady across the board," said Fried. "But you're judged relative to the other 299 on the list, and if others slipped down, that would move you up. I tend to think that might be what happened."
City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman also was hesitant to bring out the champagne.
"Obviously, in a higher-ranking year, you're pleased, but it's hard to draw conclusions from their rankings," Zimmerman said.
"They change their criteria from year to year. It's definitely a nice reflection on the community to be on the list - but we've (also) gone from being 200 to being 34 in one year."
Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II was optimistic about the city's place on the list.
"I'm hoping the rankings will go up even further because we're going to crack down on crime," Bruchey said. "And we will become aggressive with promoting Hagerstown as a tourist destination. I look forward to a climb again next year, and every year after that."
Money Magazine compiles the list by asking its readers what they consider most important in choosing a place to live, and giving points to the nation's 300 largest metropolitan areas for their ratings in each of those categories.
This year, the readers said they wanted to live in places with low crime, good health care, good education and a strong economy, the magazine said.
In addition to crime and health, Money Magazine rated places according to economy, housing, weather, education, transportation and arts and leisure.
Fried said the fact Hagerstown ranks above average in the crime category and average in the health category didn't hurt when it came to the final standings, since those two areas were given heavy weight by the magazine's readers.
But she said Hagerstown's ratings in the various categories didn't change dramatically from last year, on average.
Metropolitan areas are assigned a ranking between 0 and 100 in each category, with one being worst and 100 best.
The Hagerstown area's highest score this year was 62 in the crime category, down from 78 last year. Money Magazine takes violent crimes and property crimes into consideration in that category. The area rated 50 for availability, affordability and quality of health care, 48 for education and leisure opportunities, 41 for the arts, 31 for weather, 28 for economy, and 20 for transportation.
Figures for all categories except crime cover the period from January to December 1996, but the FBI crime statistics used to determine the crime rankings are always 18 months behind.
"In other words, for this year's rankings we used crime figures from 1995," Kim said.
In the arts and leisure categories, where Hagerstown's ratings shot up from 1996 ratings that dipped into the teens, Money Magazine for the first time took into consideration all arts and leisure opportunities within a 60-mile radius.
Kim said the categories rated most important by the readers are weighed more heavily by the magazine when it determines an area's ranking. The importance of a category can change from year to year, she said.
"It is possible for a town to stay the same, but go up or down in the rankings from year to year," she said.