City's 23 percent budget plan is crazy

April 23, 2006|by Tom Immer

My last letter to the editor expressed the hope that the Hagerstown city management might have come to its senses. Boy, was I ever wrong. The only conclusion we can draw from City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman's budget message is that the entrenched bureaucracy will spend every available dime that can be raised without raising the tax rate, solely because they can. His budget message is more than 375 pages of shucking and jiving.

Over the last five years and including the budget proposed for 2006-2007, city general property taxes will have increased 60 percent and fees for services will have increased 40 percent.

During that same time, inflation has accounted for an 8 percent increase in costs. The current budget under consideration says that the constant yield tax rate would be .735 per hundred, but Zimmerman proposes to keep the rate at its present .798. Why is it so difficult for city management to keep costs in line with growth here in the city?


Department heads propose to replace just about every piece of office equipment with mostly top-of-the-line stuff. The city enterprise funds (businesses) will have a cash profit of over $4.25 million, most of which is a projected cash profit of $3.077 million for the city light fund.

Folks, this is nothing more than a tax on property owners and other users of light, water and sewer funds' services. For years the city has claimed that water and sewer customers outside the city limits have not paid capital costs. If that is the case, why are the increases in fees for these services the same for county users as city customers pay? Don't city residents pay a good part of the county's capital costs for services the city residents do not use?

The Springsted wage study is being touted as a necessity to stop the outflow of existing city employees to other, better paying jobs "down the road." Despite repeated requests the city has not identified the number of past employees that fit into that category, except the chief of police who went down the road to Afghanistan.

The budget also warns that retiree health care costs will quadruple in 2009, due to required accounting changes that force the city to recognize the true costs as incurred. I have more to say about the Springsted study but that is for another letter.

I assume the same situation will arise over the retirement pay accounting rules inasmuch as the retirement pay fund is far short of the amount needed to pay these benefits in the future.

The city's payroll costs increased 8 percent on average this year and Zimmerman is proposing a 10.2 percent increase next year and more in subsequent two years. Fringe benefit costs now account for 41 percent of total payroll costs; what will happen when they quadruple?

The proposed budget also contains consulting fees that are apparently associated with helping our department heads do the job they represented they could do and now apparently cannot do without a lot of help.

There are also new hires for assistant department administrators and such that fall into the same category. It probably will not be long before we are hiring consultants to the consultants. If the city managers cannot do the job they were hired to do for the pay they negotiated, get rid of them. If it is necessary to pay a little more for one person to do the work that two or three will now be doing, it would still be cheaper in the long run.

The proposed increases of more than 23 percent in income and expenses is outrageous and uncalled for in a city of this size. And remember, this does not include any increase in public safety personnel, that would require a substantial increase in the tax rates.

To any reasonable observer, that smacks of the old bait-and-switch con game. If our mayor and city council members cannot see the forest for the trees, maybe they will listen to your phone calls and letters demanding that they bring some sanity back to the budget process and stop kowtowing to the bureaucracy that has been in our employ for decades.

Tom Immer is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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