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No secret budget meetings this year

April 01, 2000|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council were not as involved in early budget discussions this year as they were in 1999.

The mayor and some council members say the difference is a result of this year's rosier financial picture, not a result of public criticism.

In 1999, tight financial projections pushed the mayor and council into an unusually active role in the early stages of the budget process. Before the City Administrator released his proposed budget last year, the mayor and council had already discussed and reviewed the budget in several meetings, including some that were closed to the public.

The mayor and council were criticized for holding closed-door budget talks. Former Councilman Ira P. Kauffman Jr., now a council candidate in the upcoming election, filed a complaint with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board. The board ultimately ruled in the city's favor.

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This year, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman released his proposed budget for the 2000-2001 fiscal year Friday, and the mayor and council have not gone behind closed doors to discuss the budget. Their only budget discussions this year came during a budget retreat in January, an annual event open to the public.

Kauffman thinks the lack of closed-door budget talks this year shows his complaint made a difference.

"It proves a point. They knew they were overly secretive last year," Kauffman said. "They felt the heat."

The mayor and most council members say that isn't so.

Last year, the mayor and council were faced with projected shortfalls in the general fund as high as $1.1 million. Staffing cuts were among the money-saving possibilities examined; ultimately the council decided to lay off one part-time worker.

This year the mayor and council were told in January about the projected general fund shortfall would be about $270,000. Zimmerman and city staff members handled balancing the budget.

"We haven't had those personnel issues that we had last year," Councilman William M. Breichner said.

Personnel is one of the topics the council is permitted to discuss in closed sessions.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said: "The difference is last year we were told about the budget shortfall and we were told there may be the need to raise taxes, which some didn't like. So, Bruce (Zimmerman) wanted direction."

"Last year was a different animal," Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said. "There was a lot of personnel (discussions) last year."

Councilman J. Wallace McClure said just because there haven't been any closed-door budget talks so far this year doesn't mean there won't be any. McClure said council discussions of union contracts, which could come up in budget talks, may be conducted in closed session.

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