Tax hike not only way to boost city revenues

March 01, 2006

For all the talk of a development boom, residents of the City of Hagerstown might have expected a more upbeat report from the recent City Council budget retreat.

The bad news is that there are challenges to face, but the good news is that there are some realistic solutions out there for the city's revenue problems.

Last week, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman told the council that the city is not facing a crisis, but must work through a number of financial problems.

Those include: The cost of adding proposed new employees in the police and fire departments, possible reductions in federal aid and a change in accounting standards that would require putting aside more money for city retirees' health insurance costs.


At this point, raising taxes is not one of the proposed solutions.

That's a strategy with which we agree. Last year, after four straight years of property tax increases, the council agreed to hold the rate. But the average property tax bill went up anyway, because the total assessed value of all real estate within the city limits increased from $1.51 billion to $1.63 billion.

Could proposed personnel additions be cut? Probably not. Growth that came as a result of annexation and in-city construction has increased the need for firefighters and police.

Could the city stimulate more development? Possibly. We would like to see the council explore giving property owners an incentive to convert rental dwellings into owner-occupied homes.

Not only would that increase tax revenues, but it would also up the number of homeowners in a city that needs more of them. Over time, it would also reduce the city's costs for rental property inspection and for the law-enforcement problems associated with some rental properties.

But the biggest possible savings for city government could come from a look at merging some services with the county government.

In the past, when a city-county merger has been talked about, it has been greeted with everything from indifference to outright hostility.

But The Herald-Mail's look at how such mergers have worked in other areas revealed that even when a merger under study didn't go through, research revealed that it was possible to save money if the two governments combined some functions.

If this still sounds too radical, consider that nearby Winchester and Frederick County, Va., are looking at a merger right now.

On Jan. 18, The Winchester Star reported that a Public Opinion/Public Input subcommittee had been formed to get input and report to the public on the progress being made.

It may be that this city-county merger, like many others considered in the U.S., won't ever take place. Many difficult issues need to be resolved before anything happens there.

But even though we're not sure what will happen in Winchester, we are certain that studying the possible benefits of merging with Frederick County, Va., will yield some real savings possibilities.

Should Hagerstown and Washington County do the same? That's up to elected officials, but the least they should do is assign staff to see what happens in Virginia and what this area can learn from it.

The Herald-Mail Articles