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City might raise compensation for travel expenses

January 25, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown City Council members soon might be able to loosen the city's belt some when it comes to professional development expenses.

City Council members can be reimbursed for up to $1,000 annually in costs such as those for attending conferences and seminars, according to city code. The mayor is allowed up to $3,000.

During the mayor and city council work session Tuesday, city Finance Director Alfred Martin said those figures have not changed since the early 1980s.

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"Inflation has eroded away at that limit," Martin said. "The $1,000-a-year (limit) does not buy what it did 20 years ago."

After three city council members overspent their conference budgets during a trip to North Carolina in early December, they asked Martin earlier this month to look into raising the amount the city compensates them for taking part in such sessions.

Council members Kelly S. Cromer, Penny M. Nigh and Alesia D. Parson-McBean attended the National League of Cities' Congress of Cities and Exposition in early December in Charlotte, N.C. Between airfare, registration, meals and two hotel rooms, they accumulated expenses of $3,621, according to preliminary figures from the city.

Martin said the figures should, at the least, be doubled to reflect current costs. Instead of changing the code to include a higher limit, he said the council more appropriately might decide to delete the code entirely and instead include a specific figure for professional development in the city's budget annually.

"It would allow for flexibility in accordance with the needs of the city in the future," Martin said.

One problem with the plan, City Attorney Mark K. Boyer said, is that state law prohibits elected officials from directly benefiting from such changes. He said the mayor and council might need to wait until after the next city election to enjoy increased spending limits. He said there is some uncertainty about whether the restriction applies to expenses as well as salaries for public officials.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he does not think there is much danger in enacting the changes to benefit the sitting officials because he doubts anyone would take issue with the measure. He noted the city already violated state law, in a technical sense, when Cromer, Nigh and Parson-McBean overspent their $1,000 limits.

"Being afraid of lawsuits means that you do nothing," said Metzner, an attorney. "I think we just amend the code to take out the cap and then we do it by budget."

To be certain, the council asked Boyer to more carefully research the issue and report back at a future meeting.

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