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As tax increase looms again,city must eye joint services

October 01, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

In October of 2001, Hagerstown's Finance Department projected that city property taxes would have to be increased more than 35 percent over the next five years to keep the city's budget in balance.

The city's elected officials said they felt that was unrealistic, but after a long struggle to cut the current year's budget, business and property taxes were increased by 4.9 percent.

Now comes word that the city's projected shortfall, which officials had thought would be $678,368 for fiscal 2003, could now hit $1 million. The cause is declining revenue from the personal property tax and state income tax, and once again, property tax increases are on the table.

Councilman Kristin Aleshire is proposing an impact fee to cover the cost of firefighting expenses, with single-family homes being assessed $500, townhouses assessed $750 and $1,000 for apartments.

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We have concerns about whether it makes sense to fund ongoing expenses with a one-time fee, but the real question city residents ought to be asking is: What's being done long-term to raise revenues and trim the city's expenses?

The most obvious answer is one that's been talked about for 20-years or more - merging city and county services. As technology made it possible for fewer people to do the same amount of work, private business has trimmed payrolls; the city and Washington County must join forces to do the same.

City officials need to approach the county with a plan to set up an employee study group - a consultant study might ensure that nothing ever happens - to suggest opportunities for mergers and look into how the merged employee groups would be supervised.

Somewhere in the country, maybe even in Maryland, someone has already done this. The Maryland Municipal League, among others, should be able to tell the city and county where. Next year the state is certain to cut back on what it gives local government, so it make sense to start looking now for opportunities to save money.

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