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Council hears about budget choices

April 05, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN

Significant projects are proposed in the next Hagerstown budget, but plenty will be decided over the next several weeks, the city council heard Tuesday during an early 2006-07 budget discussion.

Such as, should the city raise taxes to hire more police officers and firefighters?

The $134.4 million budget proposed for the next fiscal year is about $26.2 million higher than this year's.

However, property tax rates would not go up.

"After years of stagnant growth in our primary source of operating revenues, Hagerstown began to benefit from stronger property tax revenue growth in the past year," a budget overview says.

Elected officials received the budget plan Friday and heard it explained Tuesday.

The city council must pass a final 2006-07 budget by the end of May.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said Tuesday that the city faced general-fund deficits of $2 million in 2003-04 and $1.75 million in 2004-05, but those deficits have been erased.

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City officials crafted a budget plan for next year that includes a net increase of 11 full-time positions, pay step increases and a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for employees.

Of particular significance, Finance Director Alfred Martin said, is a proposal to spend $250,000 a year in debt service on a $2.5 million downtown revitalization bond. He said there are no specific plans for the money yet.

The budget plan includes money to widen Eastern Boulevard and to design improvements to Dual Highway and Edgewood Drive.

It also would fund improvements at the R.C. Willson Water Treatment Plant, new west end water reservoir facilities, two new fire stations, and a utility and streetscape upgrade of Jonathan Street.

City council members were given two other budget alternatives, each of which carries a tax increase.

The first alternative would raise employees' salaries, carrying out the first year of a three-year plan recommended by a wage and benefit study. The city would have to raise the tax rate by 1.68 cents.

The second alternative would raise the tax rate by 1.86 cents to hire three police officers, nine firefighters and a fire training captain. Two more police officers and nine more firefighters might be hired the following year.

Martin said the city anticipates $910,000 this year and $970,000 next year in excise tax revenue if it passes an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

However, rising energy prices will force a 50 percent jump in fuel costs, from $800,000 to $1.2 million, he said.

Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire asked Martin to clarify that proposed utility cost increases in the budget - 51 percent in electricity, 20 percent in water and 17 percent in sewer - do not translate into similar rate increases.

Martin agreed. He said the city's water and sewer rates are projected to rise 3.5 percent in October. Electricity rates, however, will go up more, he said.

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