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Residents submit budget-cutting ideas

May 01, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

It's time to announce the winner in the latest Herald-Mail letter-writing contest, for which I asked readers to tell me, in 50 words or less, how they'd cut Hagerstown's budget to avert the second tax increase in two years. I got a bunch of replies, some from people who live outside the city.

Phillip M. Snider of Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote that "only way to start saving revenues is to neutralize the special interests that all governments squander the people's money on."

How to do that? Snider said he would enact legislation that would force everyone to vote or forfeit any "city, state and/or federal benefits."

Mary Haines of Hagerstown said citizens do not know enough about the city budget to make intelligent suggestions on where to cut.

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Publish everything that Herald-Mail reporter Dan Kulin brings back from City Hall without editing, she said, except for spelling errors.

"Otherwise what you are doing with this contest is passing the buck to an undeducated public to make random guesses about how to cut taxes," she wrote.

Russell Kendall wrote that to save money, the city should go to once-a-week trash pick-ups, have city employees pay part of their health-insurance costs, avoid duplication of services, annex more county areas into the city to increase the tax base and have the county government pay a surcharge for city attractions that all county residents use.

S. Meyers of Hagerstown complained that 50 words was an impossible target to hit, given the number of suggestions he or she had, including eliminating the city subsidy for the Ice and Sports complex, canceling the Pangborn Park parking lot renovation, cutting planning money for the Funkstown Bypass and not funding a new baseball stadium.

Vicky Smith said people should be able to pay taxes through a direct-debit system, which would save envelopes and perhaps a staff person as well. Have downtown clean-up done by those sentenced to community service and eliminate the summer youth jobs program, she said.

That same clean-up idea came from former city councilman Al Boyer, who said that in addition, volunteer groups might be enlisted to mow parks and other city property.

Boyer said he would also stop using the fire alarm system that features pull boxes at various places in the city.

"It is maintained throughout the city and nobody has ever been able to tell me the last use, other than false alarms."

Finally, said Boyer, the city's budget woes cannot be solved while adding personnel.

If this council is serious about avoiding tax increases, Boyer said, then force reduction must be "a first consideration."

James M. Carbaugh wrote that the city must "make sure that the councilmen and women know the meaning of the word budget. He notes that Webster's Dictionary defines "budget" as "a plan or schedule adjusting expenses during a certain period to the estimated or fixed income for that period."

His second suggestion was "More power to Penny Nigh" and his third was to "forget raising revenues."

Tom Immer wrote to say that "the city should immediately close all departments that provide a service duplicated by the county. Minor legal differences are not worth the price we pay for such chauvinism."

Immer also said he believed the city should sue the county "for a fair and just distribution of taxes collected here."

And, he said, "Throw out the good old boy network."

Another possibility: "Become an independent city like Baltimore and get Peter's money." I assume he means Peter Angelos, the wealthy attorney who owns the Baltimore Orioles.

The final entry came from James Upchurch, president of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, who noted that in a letter he wrote in March of 2001, he suggested that the city use state and federal aid to develop new decent and affordable rental housing. In that way he said private landlords would be pressed to compete by offering better units. And thereby presumably increase the tax base.

I'm sorry, but some property owners will only fix up their properties if forced to. And I'm convinced that like zoning, which was reviled when it was first introduced here, rental property inspection will eventually be seen as a sensible way to keep properties in good repair and the tax base from crumbling.

Yes, Mary Haines is correct: Most citizens don't have enough information to say where all the fat is. But what I was asking is: What would you give up? And what increased charge or user fee would you be willing to pay to keep property taxes down?

Using that yardstick, Russell Kendall, who got right to the point with some practical suggestions, is the winner of a ticket for two to the Exchange Club Louisiana Pig Roast and Bonanza, catered by Cajun Cookin' of Hagerstown from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 18 at the Potomac Fish & Game Club. Congratulations.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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