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Aleshire finds savings in Hagerstown budget

May 12, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

To prepare for his first budget as a Hagerstown City Councilman, Kris Aleshire went through the printout five times, page-by-page, marking items to ask the city's Finance Department about.

Aleshire may be new to the job, but he knows that sometimes funding for one project is linked to spending elsewhere, so that a cut that seems harmless can lead to the loss of a grant or other state funding.

"I spent the last two Fridays on the budget with the Finance Department for five or six hours and a good many of the nights for the last four weeks. I just kept going over it and over it," he said.

Aleshire wasn't bragging during an hour-long interview this past Wednesday, just trying to emphasize that the savings everyone assumes is hidden in the 800-page budget is darned difficult to find.

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"We're up to about $300,000 now. That's about 1.7 cents off the proposed increase. My goal was to get the increase down to 3 cents," he said.

As proposed, the budget would have added $53 to the property tax bill of someone with a house valued at $100,000.

"We've knocked about $17 off that so far," he said.

One thing Aleshire found is that the fees the city charges - for inspections and services done in the planning and zoning area - no longer cover the city's costs for providing those services. That means that when someone puts up a new development, the general taxpayer is subsidizing the services the city provides to help get it built.

For example, Aleshire said, if someone wants to divide one of the city's large old homes into a five-unit apartment building, the charge to take it before the board of zoning appeals is $125.

"That $125 doesn't even cover the cost of advertising," Aleshire said, to say nothing of the staff time involved.

Then there was $80,000 earmarked for improvements to the Pangborn Park parking lot, which is close to a controversial development that would turn the now-defunct company's parking lot into a housing development.

"I don't feel we should be building the developer a parking lot," Aleshire said.

That money, from the Community Betterment Fund, could then be transferred to the Fairgrounds Park project, freeing up general fund money to apply to the tax savings, Aleshire said.

Aleshire said that as he researched the budget, he found that since 1982, the tax rate has gone up and down, with the net effect being that in 20 years, the tax rate has only increased by 3 cents.

Aleshire didn't say this but I will: As long as assessments kept going up, everything was okay. When new development outside the city drew businesses and residents away and the city's aging stock of buildings failed to lure in as many as had left, the revenue stream began to dry up, and the city found itself in financial trouble.

To compensate, over the years the city deferred capital projects, Aleshire said, like the rebuilding of the wall surrounding City Park Lake, which has been put offf since 1982.

"Last year they deferred some of the annual (road) resurfacing. The Potterfield Pool parking lot resurfacing has been deferred since 1981, West Memorial Boulevard since 1982," he said.

Because the city's utilities - light, water and sewer - have made significant investments that haven't been reflected in their PILOT fees - payments in lieu of taxes - Aleshire proposes raising those to beef up the general fund.

He would also raise the trash fee by $2 a year, because the fee paid now doesn't cover the twice-a-year bulk collection, in part because so many single-family dwellings have been converted to rentals.

"From a single-family house you might get one couch, but from a 10-unit apartment building you might get 10," he said.

Smaller cuts he'd like to make include:

- A $4,000 item to subsidize council parking spaces in the Potomac Street deck, which he says makes no sense when council has its own reserved spaces in the basement of City Hall,

- A reduction in the subsidy to the ice rink, which had been scheduled to drop to $10,000 this year, but which was listed in the budget at $20,000, and

- A look at a differential in fees for services like park pavilion rentals and the city golf course, where 60 percent of the season pass purchasers live outside the city limits.

This column could have been twice as long as it is, given the many topics Aleshire touched on, like utility fees, which don't pertain directly to the general fund.

But Aleshire hopes to find economies there as well, to hold down utility rate increases for citizens. He would also review some of the bulk rates, which unlike those in some other areas of Maryland, give those who use more a cheaper rate.

"In every other place, the bulk rate goes up as you use more. We at least need to look at making it flat" as consumption increases, he said.

Aleshire said he went looking for $200,000 in spending cuts and $200,000 in additional revenues and has gotten about three-quarters of the way there, in a process that will be ongoing.

In addition to thanking Aleshire for his diligence, city residents ought to ask this question: If a freshman councilman can do this, why not the professionals at City Hall? If they can't, perhaps there ought to be an examination of some potential savings in the personnel area.

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

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