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timcol. 4/8

April 06, 2001

Even in spending, smaller sometimes is better



In a year when the economy has slowed and many households have already seen their utility costs skyrocket, the City of Hagerstown is proposing a tax hike that would add $73 to the bill for a $100,000 home.

The football equivalent of this proposal is known as "stretching the field" - throwing deep on the first play, knowing the pass will be incomplete, but figuring it will increase the chances of a shorter pass's success.

So inevitably, we will still have a tax increase, though probably not as large as the city's opening volley.

With the economy becoming a concern, this isn't the ideal time for a tax increase, at least purely from a public policy standpoint. Accepted policy (just because it's accepted doesn't mean anyone actually adheres to it; it's like George Carlin said about his editorial policy - "We recognize our obligation to present opposing views; we don't present them, but we recognize our obligation") is to pad tax revenues and public program purses in fat times, so when the down cycle arrives taxes can be cut without curtailing government's ability to assist those on the increasing unemployment rolls.

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Further, political wisdom holds that taxes are never raised in an election year, for obvious reasons. Not only is it an election year in the city, it's darn near an election month. This ought to make for some fruity exchanges among candidates in the next few weeks.

The city's problem is as simple as the solution is complex.

1. The tax base, and therefore tax revenue, is barely growing.

2. To increase the tax base, people (especially homeowners interested in improving their property) and commerce must be attracted into town.

3. To attract people into town, the city must become more desirable - for instance, by beefing up the police force to make people feel safe.

4. To become more desirable, the city must spend money. Money which it doesn't have because it's tax base isn't growing.

The tax hike would raise $1.3 million, much of which would be spent to enhance city life. Of this, nearly a half-million dollars is earmarked for police, fire and rescue services.

Crime and what for lack of a better term can be called the annoyance factor (cruisers, groups of loud men standing on the corner at midnight, ladies debating boyfriend sole-proprietorships at elevated decibel levels) have become perhaps the hottest topic of the election.

To their credit, most candidates seem to realize that crime prevention is a multi-legged insect. If you neglect recreation opportunities and community centers, more kids with idle hands will be out on the street. Neglecting housing quality, parks and neighborhoods practically begs the destruction of traditional family life. Weeds will choke out healthy plants.

If you neglect basic, and in truth some not-so-basic needs, you can raise taxes and buy more cops year after year after and crime will continue to plague the town.

Some line items the city cannot afford not to fund. The tax hike provides $25,000 for the Hagerstown Home Store. An indiscriminate tax- and budget-cutter might slice this without another thought.

But this is an instance where a few thousand dollars will almost assuredly save city taxpayers money in years to come. Luring homeowners into the city is a critical key to raising the tax base. Owners have a stake in increasing the value of their properties. They generally have more income, which benefits merchants and makes new businesses more viable.

Likewise, money spent on efforts to enforce city property codes can't help but pay off and save city taxpayers money in the long run. Trashy properties tend not to assess real well.

All that said, this tax increase can - and no doubt will - be scaled back. (Don't forget, cuts can come from the entire budget, not just this list of "extras"). And it probably can afford to be scaled back significantly. Some of the items, such as $22,000 for a New Year's Eve celebration, seem so excessive as to make one wonder if they aren't red herrings designed to deflect the heat, allowing other line items to sneak through under the radar.

That, I know, assigns government credit for a lot of creative thought and cleverness, so perhaps this notion is not worthy of pursuit.

If nothing else, this proposal will provide some good candidate grist for the last few weeks of what has been a rather bland city council campaign.

These candidates should be encouraged to tell us where this tax hike crosses the line of frugality. But with that in mind, they hopefully will consider that some money not spent now will cost city taxpayers down the road.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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