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City should ask Snook to define 'cooperation'

January 30, 2004

Given the announcement that the state is cutting local aid, the news that the City of Hagerstown is facing a $1.8 million gap in next year's budget plan wasn't a big surprise.

But as we have been saying for several years, the city government cannot raise property taxes every year, unless it wants to chase out all those residents who can afford to leave. Hagerstown officials may have to look at some more creative solutions.

A tax increase is not a sure thing, according to City Finance Director Al Martin, who said that the city will first look at ways to save money within individual departments.

But that's what the city government was forced to do last year, when it froze five management jobs and didn't fill a dozen nonmanagement positions.

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Some employee incentives were cut back and the city also delayed the start of some road-improvement projects.

After all that, the city was still forced to increase property taxes by 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In October 2001, Martin said that to keep the budget balanced, the city would have to raises taxes by 35 percent over the next five years. At the time we called for a plan that would find new revenue and cut costs significantly, but if such a plan exists, we haven't seen it.

Not all of the blame should go to the present council, which reversed decades of neglect on items like rental inspection and economic development. But the current group does need to look at how it can cut the cost of doing business and convince the Washington County government to share additional revenue.

A long-promised revision in the tax setoff given to the city hasn't happened yet, even though the county government uses $2 million of its general fund revenues to subsidize sewer rates for customers outside the city limits. Much of that $2 million is collected from city residents, who get no benefit from it, just as they get no benefit from a variety of county taxes collected within the municipal limits.

Commissioners' President Greg Snook recently called for more "cooperation" on the city's part. Recent county overtures have asked a great deal in return for some vague promises, but city officials now need to ask Snook what he wants, and what he'll deliver if he gets it.

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