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March 9, 2005

HIM Turns Into Pontius Pilate

John W. Ashbury

The first column I wrote about Mayor Jennifer Dougherty and her City of Frederick administration wondered if – in fact – she was assuming the role of Her Imperial Majesty (or HIM) rather than just that of a plain old mayor.

With her pronouncement last Friday that she was presenting an austere budget, and that its severity was the direct result of actions taken by the aldermen last November when they approved a tax reduction for owner-occupied residential property, that question remains. Her solution to the reduced tax review is to eliminate 12 positions.

With direct reference to those job losses, Mayor Dougherty said – as reported in The Frederick News Post: “They have the blood on their hands.”

That is simply an outrageous remark from any elected official, much less the mayor of the state’s second largest city. One would have thought that her upbringing and college education would have taught her that Pontius Pilate was not a hero to the people he governed – either.

And she wonders why there is discord within her administration.

So, exactly what did the mayor propose in her budget presentation beyond the layoffs? She emphasized the negative rather than the positives – as she is wont to do in almost every circumstance.

First of all, two of those positions she wants eliminated are required by The Charter of The City of Frederick – the directors of Human Resources and Parks and Recreation. Such actions make one wonder just how familiar she is with that document.

One of the other jobs facing the axe is the one held by former Frederick City Policeman Jesse Goode, one of the most respected and responsible employees of the city.

All three of these moves are designed by the mayor to raise the biggest stink among the aldermen. She knows how to irritate people and she makes the most of every opportunity to do so.

Recently I had a lengthy conversation with a gentleman who was a staunch supporter of the mayor’s. He had attended a meeting of The Mayor and Board of Aldermen and was astonished at what he saw and heard.

While not absolving the aldermen completely, he said that three times within a 20-minute span the mayor went out of her way to make what he considered a nasty remark to an individual who was addressing the elected officials. His conclusion was that he would no longer support the mayor’s re-election or contribute in any manner to her campaign.

But…back to the budget!

While eliminating the personnel director, at a savings of $96,999, and the director of Parks and Recreation, at a savings of $90,786, and the 10 other positions, at the very same time the mayor is asking for the creation of 20 new positions – 15 fulltime and five part-time.

As mentioned before, all this – according to the mayor – is because the aldermen voted to establish a new limit on the assessed value for tax purposes of owner occupied residential property. State law sets the upper limit at a 10 percent increase over last year’s assessed value. The aldermen voted to set the limit at five percent.

Another item which isn’t among her talking points is that the revenues from property taxes will go up nearly $3 million – even with the approved reduction – if the property tax rate remains the same.

When Alderman David Lenhart initially proposed some sort of tax relief for citizens on fixed incomes, he said that figures given to him by the city’s finance department estimated that the city would realize an increase between $1 and $1.5 million in property tax revenues in Fiscal Year 2006 because of the reassessments that would be announced at the end of December.

When his initial suggestions developed into what was approved in November, city officials said it would cost the city between $260,000 and $300,000 in what they described as “lost” revenues.

Now the mayor is saying that the new law will cost the city around $600,000. But what she isn’t saying is that the property tax revenues are expected to be nearly $3 million higher next year than this year.

So, even an elementary school math student would understand that if you double your money, then any reduction – in this situation – would also double.

This doesn’t mean the city gets less money. The city will still get more money, just not as much as it would have gotten had the aldermen not approved the reduction in November.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the mayor “sneaky Pete” budget outline of last week. Why has she included pay raises for the aldermen when the board voted down those increases? And why has she included salary hikes for employees while at the same time laying off other workers?

Perhaps the most perplexing question that arises from the information presented so far is just how much more total revenue will the city realize in the next fiscal year?

If property tax revenues are going up $3 million, and income and sales tax revenues are rising as well, the city is likely to get at least a 10 percent total increase in revenues. That would mean between $5 and $6 million in added dollars to spend.

So, it is difficult to understand why it is necessary to cut 12 positions, while adding 20 new jobs – unless, of course, your intent is to rid yourself of holdover employees and to put your own people in those positions later.

There is a workshop at City Hall later today, so some more details should become available. Let’s hope – and pray – that the mayor will make some sense of what she has already proposed.

So far, confusion reigns.

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