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Editorial - One taxing dilemma

March 11, 1998

Editorial - One taxing dilemma

Keeping the peace isn't cheap.

Just ask the Hagerstown City Council, which spent some time this past Friday discussing what must be an elected official's least-favorite topic - raising taxes. But due to the increasing cost of police overtime, something must be done to balance the books.

It's still early in the budget-making process, and there'll be a few hundred proposals to trim the budget to avoid upping taxes, but there's going to be a $420,000 shortfall in the 1998-99 budget. That's a lot of trimming, in a city that really needs to invest some money to turn around a financial situation featuring flat property-tax revenues.

The city cannot abandon the neighborhoods to drug dealers and other criminals, so cutting back the police is out. To reverse a situation that has 60 percent of the city's population renting while only 40 percent own their homes, the city will need better marketing and subsidized mortgage rates. And convincing people to bring new jobs and businesses here will mean finding the means to promote the city and secure sites needed for industry.

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In short, while there may be fat in the city's general-fund budget, it's not the sort of waste it's easy to point a finger at. And because the city is already faced with the challenge of reviving itself after an exodus of people and businesses to the suburbs, cutting services for residents does not seem like a strategy that would reverse that trend.

In truth, the city government has done a good job of holding down taxes. The current rate, $1.70 per $100 of assessed value, has been in effect since 1995. Prior to that, the rate was $1.71, a rate that had been in effect since 1990, which means that for eight years, the rate has been nearly unchanged.

Based on past experience, we suspect that the council will close the shortfall with a combination of cuts and a modest property-tax increase. We won't take an editorial position until we see the council's specific recommendations, but in a city fighting to rebuild, we'd be surprised if the council decides that now is the time to do less.

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