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Aleshire's last stand on Hagerstown budget

April 23, 2006|By BOB MAGINNIS

Every years that he's been in office, Hagerstown Councilman Kristin Aleshire has taken an in-depth look at the city's proposed budget. He's done it again this year, but he said that unless it prompts some action from his fellow members, it's the last year he will do it.

The city must hold the line on taxes, Aleshire said, adding that it can be done by a combination of increasing city revenues - for development reviews and the like - and cutting items he feels are unnecessary.

Aleshire said he came to this conclusion after spending 19 hours reviewing the city budget, reading it three times and then creating a 14-page list of questions for department heads and a series of tables that rank his proposals. Add them all up, he said, and you can see that the city's tax rate is too high.

"I looked at all the municipalities in the state with populations over 25,000. There are a total of eight. Of those, we had the highest tax rate," he said.

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In fact, he said, Hagerstown has the third-highest tax rate of Maryland's 156 municipalities, the highest combined city-county tax rate and the highest differential - 6.4 cents - between the tax rate and the constant-yield rate, or CYR.

(The CYR is the rate which, when adjusted downward because of increasing assessments, would produce the same amount of money as the previous year.)

At this point, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman has proposed a $134.4 million budget that he said will require no increase in the tax rate. But Aleshire said the request was presented with three "tiers," or options.

Tier No. 2 would increase employee salaries to levels suggested in a recent consultant study, while No. 3 would hire additional police and firefighters. Both would require tax increases - No. 2 would necessitate a 3.5-cent jump, while No. 3's effect hasn't been calculated, he said.

The city needs to be frugal now, Aleshire said, because in fiscal year 2008-2009, new rules take effect that will require the city to put aside money for retiree benefits.

"Instead of just being on paper, it has to be in the bank," Aleshire.

The amount required will be $5 million, Aleshire said, so the city must be smart about its finances now.

Based on his review, the city could enhance revenues by $1 million and cut expenses by $980,000. That would mean a 8-cent cut in the tax rate, but as a practical matter, a cut that size isn't possible, he said, because of the need to keep revenues flowing as part of a six-year budget projection.

What is practical, Aleshire said, is a cut of at least $750,000, which would allow the city to do its Tier 2 option with no tax increase. In a follow-up e-mail, I asked Aleshire how he would deal with requests for additional police and firefighters.

He said his proposal includes six firefighters and two new police officers, but would eliminate the police cadet program.

The cadets have to go, he said, because if retention of existing police is problem, the money would be better spent on enhancing existing officers' pay and building the central booking facility, which would save overtime costs by putting officers back on the street more quickly.

Aleshire admitted that Hagerstown does have some unique situations that make budget-cutting more difficult than it is in other cities.

In Hagerstown, there are 40,000 people in a 10-square-mile area and only 40 percent of the dwellings are owner-occupied. Compare than to Frederick where there are 55,000 people spread out over 21 or 22 square miles with 55 percent of those people owning their own homes.

The density of the city and the demographics - a concentration of elderly, for example - add up to an increased demand for services, he said.

Despite that, Aleshire said this year's budget contains a number of items that are not necessary. All of them would be nice to have, but they're not affordable now.

His list includes:

Tennis courts and a sand volleyball court at Fairgrounds Park, $131,000.

An increase in the city's contingency fund from $35,000 to $100,000 and creation of a separate contingency fund just for any possible gasoline price increases.

Paving over the gravel lot on the site of the former Digby Products building near the Museum of Fine Arts in City Park, $190,000.

Adding islands at Park Circle to ensure drivers go in the right direction, $110,000.

Bringing the Tusing Warehouse in the municipal parking lot behind City Hall up to code, $15,000. Aleshire said that if the city had accepted just one of the offers that came in as a result of three separate RFP's (request for proposals) those costs would be borne by the new owner or developer.

Lighting the walking trail at Fairgrounds Park, $141,000. That's only for the cost of installation, Aleshire said. The citizens will then have to pay for ongoing maintenance and for power.

"These are not necessities. I would love to have them, but we're going to have a $5 million hole to fill to meet mandates," he said.

Early in his first term, I interviewed Aleshire on his budget review and my question then was: Why isn't the staff doing this?

It's still a good question. If the citizens who grumble about taxes want Aleshire to keep doing this, they should let the other council members know that Hagerstown needs to rein in spending now, to be ready for that $5 million bill that will come due sooner than anyone realizes.

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