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City makes best of a bad situation with current budget

April 14, 2010

The Hagerstown City Council's 2010-2011 budget plan could easily be construed as making the best of a bad situation.

How bad? In government, year-over-year budget increases usually are as predictable as the sun, but in the coming fiscal year, Hagerstown's budget not only will decline, it will plummet by 16 percent.

As a rule, elected officials who are conditioned to spend ever more can be counted upon to shear a pin when forced to enact meaningful cuts.

But the city council has performed this unenviable task well, holding the line on taxes and spreading the pain so as not to overly burden any one particular segment of government or the public.

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As with any business, there is no way to cut $25 million (from this year's $160 million budget) without affecting employees. Raises, cost-of-living adjustments, overtime and sick-time buybacks will be scuttled or scaled back, and all employees will be subjected to 10 furlough days.

While this is unfortunate, it also prevents the need for significant layoffs at a time when unemployment services already are stretched thin. A little pain shared by all is preferable to severe pain inflicted on a few.

This isn't the first financial blow to the city -- the general fund was cut 6 percent a year ago when the state cut highway and police funding.

And it is unlikely to be the last. The city is anticipating another $4.4 million in state cuts in the coming year.

These cuts are even harder to swallow since city tax revenue is drying up as well. Residential home values are plunging and so has taxable business revenue, among the companies that have survived at all.

The time might come when the city does indeed have to lay off workers or raise taxes, but few could argue that the council isn't doing all it can to hold the line on both in hopes that an economic turnaround will come to the rescue.

It might. Weak recessions, such as those of the past two decades, typically have weak recoveries. But severe recessions historically have recoveries that are more robust.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking and perhaps more gloom is in store over the next couple of years. But a council that has worked so hard to cut spending without raising taxes deserves a ray of sunshine to hold on to, however tenuous it might be.

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