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Cut budget in public

March 04, 1999

Certainly by now you've heard the stories. Hagerstown's property-tax revenues are flat and the budget came in $1.1 million higher than expected revenues. The mayor and council put out a directive saying that the budget would be cut, but property taxes wouldn't go up and firefighters and police officers wouldn't be laid off. Now comes word that the mayor and council have made $775,000 in cuts, leaving them just $325,000 away from a balanced budget.

How have they done this? In which areas have the cuts come? We can't say, because the budget-cutting has been done in executive session. For an administration that's calling for greater citizen involvement, through neighborhood associations and plans to bring high school students to government meetings, it's a strange way to do business.

Yes, we know that according to Mayor Robert Bruchey II, no final decisions have been made. But, he admitted that there were "options presented and options agreed to" during those closed sessions.

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Now it would be easy to argue that the voters really don't care, since only 21.6 percent of them bothered to vote in the city's last general election in May 1997. But if citizens are going to "make Hagerstown a priority" as Bruchey called on them to do during this past Tuesday's "State of the City," he needs to make them a part of the process.

That means including them in the debate by talking about the hard choices the city faces. It also means asking them for input about where they'd like the cuts to occur.

The reason most often cited for deliberating public matters in private is that the proposals under discussion would affect existing employees. But unless elected officials are talking about an individual employee's qualifications - as opposed to holding a discussing whether they can afford to keep everyone they have on the payroll now - the debate should take place in public.

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