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Hagerstown needs a plan to curb future tax increases

January 15, 2003

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

Mayor William Breichner called that projection "unrealistic," but the council is now facing another increase to cover a $1.5 million shortfall. As we said last year, the council has a duty to offer a plan to stabilize tax rates, unless it wants existing property owners to flee.

That may sound a bit severe, but if there is no strategy for balancing the budget other than a continuing escalation of the tax rate, what does that say to existing residents and those the city hopes to attract in the future?

In 2001, the mayor said that some savings would come from consolidating services with the Washington County government and some new revenues from annexing additional lands. But the city's annexation policy is tied up in court and the two largest local governments are acting more like the Hatfields and McCoys than potential partners.

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Nor has there been any visible progress on a plan put forth in 2001 by James Bestpitch, the state representative of Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Called "workplace re-engineering," it involves cross-training unionized employees to do more than one type of job, then reducing the work force through attrition. Such a plan, which is already in force in Cumberland, takes several years to achieve significant savings. That means getting it underway as soon as possible is vital.

During the last budget cycle, Councilman Kristin Aleshire spent days combing through the city's budget book to find savings. In the process, he discovered some city fees didn't cover the cost of providing services.

Are there similar savings to be found? Probably. And even if they don't cover the entire shortfall, knowing that the city staff is trying hard to be frugal will give citizens some confidence that the future need not include an endless series of tax increases.

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