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City budget focuses on community projects

April 03, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - With financial projections for the City of Hagerstown looking more solid than they have in some years, the city's budget shows an increased focus on community and neighborhood programs.

In the $107.7 million fiscal 2005-06 budget projection released Thursday, city officials announced they have no plans to increase the city property tax rate for the first time since 2000.

But whether the Hagerstown City Council will keep the budget as focused on neighborhood improvement as called for in the budget remains to be seen.

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The first spending measure that might be shifted toward another use is $250,000 that for now is set aside for "community-based initiatives."

The money would be set aside for the mayor and council to decide how to use throughout the coming fiscal year, but the budget suggests several possible uses, including housing programs or neighborhood improvement projects.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said he has some concerns about how the budget is set up, including the discretionary fund.

"What I don't want us to do," Aleshire said, is take the trend the council has set in the last three budget cycles "and squander it."

Financial strengths, weaknesses


Holding the tax rate steady is just one example of how the budget shows that city officials believe the city's financial outlook is improving, despite some weaknesses in key areas.

The budget shows that officials, for instance, are expecting a $200,000 to $300,000 reduction in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Block Grant program.

The city also is counting on state highway user revenues collected through the state gas tax, but the budget acknowledges that the state budget could be slashed before the city finalizes its budget.

The city also lost for the first time its community betterment dividend. The dividend was a $400,000 shift from the City Light Department's customer billing fees into the so-called Community Betterment Fund, some of which had been used to pay for outstanding debt on the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex.

The dividend wasn't available this year, city officials said earlier this year, because the city's base rate had not been adjusted for about 30 years, and therefore, the city didn't collect enough money to cover the cost of the electricity purchased by the city.

"The question is, can we cut the (tax) rate," City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said. Asked if it was election-year politicking that kept the tax rate at the same level, he said, "I wish it was. ... I think if we can get it down to a constant yield" - keeping the taxpayer contribution the same by reducing the tax rate - "then it'll be election-year politics."

Aleshire said he would like to see the tax rate reduced and the good financial situation is no coincidence. He said the city's annexation policy helped put the city in the right economic direction.

"People can say that it's coincidence, but anybody coming into office that would have implemented those similar policies would have experienced those same results," Aleshire said.

New programs, projects


In addition to the $250,000 discretionary community programs budget, there is another $70,000 set aside for similar programs out of the Community Development Block Grant money.

Under what city officials call "livable city and neighborhood first" projects, the city has planned several sidewalk improvements, tree plantings and streetscaping projects.

There is $100,000 in the 2005-06 budget to build sidewalks along Dual Highway, and another $100,000 is planned for each of the following four years.

The city would spend $675,000 in 2005-06 for streetscaping plans along Jonathan Street, and another $600,000 in the following year.

There has been $25,000 set aside for street tree planting for the coming budget year.

While a number of positions had been added in the past few months in the planning, water and sewer and police departments, the budget only makes room for one additional full-time employee - a new programmer for the city's information technology department.

There would be 461 full-time city employees and 16 part-time employees under the proposed budget. The total wages and benefits proposed for the coming budget amount to about $29.2 million, according to an analysis of the budget.

Areas that might need work


City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot said the city's emergency services need to be upgraded, and that's not necessarily reflected in the current budget.

"I hope and pray it doesn't take a disaster of catastrophic magnitude to bring about the change we need," Hendershot said.

For one, a $50,000 allocation to Community Rescue Service, the private rescue service that serves city residents, isn't enough, Hendershot said.

Aleshire and Hendershot also agreed that the city could look at using some of the $250,000 discretionary "community" money to boost city fire staff.

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