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Hagerstown council members get heated about budget

Easton says city is 'not competitive' with surrounding areas with its current tax rate

May 15, 2012|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN — After hearing little public comment a week ago, Hagerstown City Councilman Forrest Easton was vocal Tuesday about the city’s steady tax rate and proposed budget for fiscal 2012-13.

Prior to a vote on introducing the pair of ordinances, Easton told council members he would be voting against both because the city is “not competitive” with surrounding areas with its current tax rate of $0.788 per $100 of assessed property value.

The tax rate on business personal property is $1.97 per $100 of assessed value.

“We’re not competitive, and we need to look at ways to lower the tax rate,” Easton said. “Taxes will be going up very shortly in the state of Maryland, which will also push those expenses to Washington County ... and if we truly want to be competitive, we need to lower our tax rate.”

The city’s proposed total operating budget of $128.5 million includes $36.6 million in its general fund, which is supported by tax dollars.

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Easton’s remarks sparked a somewhat heated discussion that went on for about 20 minutes before the council voted 3-1 in favor of the introduction of both ordinances, with Easton casting the “no” votes.

Councilwoman Ashley Haywood was absent.

When asked if he had suggestions about where expenses could be cut, Easton said that the budget should be discussed throughout the year, rather than just the months leading up to the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

“Especially this year,” he said. “The only thing we’re discussing during that month is the Hagerstown Suns and building a new stadium.”

A shouting match ensued when Councilman Martin Brubaker asked Easton again what areas he would like to cut.

“Is it police? Is it fire? Is it recreation?” he asked.

“I don’t have a list of things,” Easton replied.

Easton said council members have been unwilling to discuss potential budget cuts, including his suggestion in the past to eliminate the city’s fire marshal positions.

Councilman Lewis Metzner said that other than cutting the fire marshals, he hasn’t heard any other suggestions.

Metzner also pointed out that Easton’s claims that increased income-tax rates as a result of the state’s probable tax increase won’t do too much damage to city residents, which have a median income level of about $35,000 a year.

The Maryland General Assembly is expected to pass a budget package this week that would increase income taxes on single filers who make more than $100,000 annually and couples who bring home over $150,000 or more each year.

“I do not believe that the income-tax rate is going to affect the residents in the city of Hagerstown almost at all,” Metzner said, noting that it would be somewhere around $20 per week for individuals who do make more than $100,000 per year.

Metzner said the city’s revenues have decreased over recent years, and necessary cuts have been made in expenditures to make ends meet, but he encouraged Easton to identify other potential areas for cuts.

Easton said he was not happy that it took the city so long to cut 50 positions, especially since city officials have talked about refilling those positions in the future.

Brubaker said the five-member council had similar discussions prior to adopting its tax rate and proposed budget last year before reaching a unanimous 5-0 vote.

“Exactly,” Easton said. “And I apologize for making that mistake last year.”

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