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Tax, fee increases approved

May 26, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

By GREGORY T. SIMMONSgregs@herald-mail.com

A 1.9 percent property tax increase, an increase in more than two dozen fees and a higher city debt level were adopted Tuesday night by the Hagerstown City Council as part of the city's $95.5 million fiscal 2005 budget.

The council voted 4-1 to adopt the budget. The tax and fee increases, which were voted on separately, passed with some opposition from council members.

Councilman N. Linn Hendershot, who voted for all seven budget-related items, said the rate increases were not as bad as they could have been.

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"I think it was a very minuscule tax increase," he said. "If we start cutting services, people are going to be upset."

The budget marks the fourth year in a row of tax increases to city property owners, who will pay an additional 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed value on real estate. The increase means the owner of a home worth $150,000 will pay $1,197 in annual city property taxes.

The tax and rate increases for items such as engineering plan review fees and monthly parking permits were part of an effort to close an anticipated budget gap of nearly $2 million. Unexpected money from the state gasoline tax, rising property values and spending cuts over the past few weeks brought the budget into balance.

The budget, which will take effect July 1, calls for an $11.4 million increase in spending.

The city found money in the budget for one more employee in the planning department - a need officials justified because of expected growth in home building.

Although officials hoped to increase the number of firefighters and code enforcers, they will not do so this year.

The city staff was reduced by a net four positions, with six police positions cut, but two positions, including the new planner, added.

The city has not settled contracts with three unions representing firefighters, water and sewer department workers, and public works and other employees. The outcomes could affect the budget.

Some of the increases in spending go to construction projects put off last year. New road projects will begin this year as well, including the widening of Eastern Boulevard and planning for Edgewood Drive improvements near Dual Highway.

Some downtown alleys will be repaved.

Also, at the direction of City Finance Director Alfred Martin, the city will expand its debt level by about $10.6 million for construction projects. Martin has said the city is well within its ability to borrow more money.

The additional debt brings the city's total debt level to $36.5 million, Martin said.

Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh voted against proposed trash, water and sewer fee increases.

"I think that the people have gotten hit hard enough ... with the regular budget. I just don't want to see them getting hit with the other" fees, Nigh said after the voting session.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire voted against the budget, the tax increase and water and sewer fee increases, saying afterward that he voted his conscience.

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