By C.J. LOVELACE
11:00 PM EDT, October 10, 2012
Twelve candidates vying for Hagerstown city offices took part in a forum Wednesday night at the Kepler Theater on the campus of Hagerstown Community College.
Ten of the 11 Hagerstown City Council candidates and both mayoral candidates — incumbent Republican Robert E. Bruchey II and Democratic challenger David Gysberts — attended, fielding numerous questions related to issues facing the city before about 30 people at the theater.
While several city council candidates acknowledged that the city’s proposed multiuse sports and events center may take precedence over other issues in the Nov. 6 general election, they urged people to consider all the issues when casting their ballots.
The top five overall vote-getters in the city council race will win seats.
After a lightning round for city council candidates gave each a different issue to give their take on, each candidate was given the chance to respond to four other questions, including what their first priority would be in office if elected as well as the status of public safety in the city.
Another question was related to the city’s tax rate, which brought several different answers.
Democratic incumbent William Breichner said he believes the current tax rate is fair and the current administration has worked together with Washington County to avoid a tax hike, and actually reduce the rate.
“I don’t see it being increased,” he said.
Incumbent Martin Brubaker, a Democrat, said the city has weathered the fiscal crisis that has affected all municipal governmental budgets in recent years, even managing a 12.5-percent tax reduction over that period.
“I would look at things such as additional revenues that would come in from various sources over the next few years and see if we could apply those to taxes before we apply them to other things,” Brubaker said.
GOP candidate Jonathan Burrs said he believes the taxes are too high for the city, county and the state, but they are fair.
“We have to focus on expanding our tax base,” he said.
Ashley C. Haywood, an unaffiliated incumbent, said the city’s tax rate is very competitive with other municipalities in the state. The issue lies more in the fact that overall incomes for city residents are too low, she said.
“I think we need to continue to promote education and provide the avenues for better paying jobs,” Haywood said.
Newcomer GOP candidate Chris Kelly said the tax rate is too high and needs to be lowered, especially with the money that the city is pledging towards its stadium project over the next 20 years.
“If there’s that much more money left over, where else is there money left over to be able to cut out of the budget (and) lower property taxes,” he said.
Multi-term incumbent Lewis C. Metzner, a Democrat, said the taxes are based on the quality of services provided by the citizens, which are very good in Hagerstown compared to other municipalities.
“(The tax rate) was lowered the largest amount its ever been lowered in the history of the city due to the tax setoff with the county that the city did not take any increase for,” he said.
Don Munson, a GOP candidate and former state legislator, said he’s knocked on thousands of doors and one major complaint from residents is about high taxes. He said he supports using speed cameras in school zones as a way to reduce taxes, which Brubaker has previously discussed.
Democrat Penny Nigh, a former council member, said the tax rate is where it should be considering the services the city currently provides.
“The only suggestion I can make is that we have to take a very, very close look at the nonprofits” that own buildings but don’t pay taxes, Nigh said.
Democrat Kristin Aleshire, also a former council member, said he’s seen both sides of the fence after serving as a Washington County commissioner. Supplying incentives for people to occupy empty homes could be a way to boost and stabilize revenues, he said.
GOP candidate Larry Bayer said the tax rate is too high.
“I’d like to see it lowered by 5 to 10 cents” by trying to expand the overall tax base through annexation, he said.
Later, a question posed to Bruchey and Gysberts in the second forum asked the candidates what alternatives — besides the stadium project — would they consider to help revitalize Hagerstown’s struggling downtown.
Bruchey said he would continue to support incentive programs that specifically work to attract businesses to the city’s core, such as the Partners in Economic Progress (PEP) program that seven companies are currently using.
“They saw the advantage of working in the core, where they have services that they can use ... and the city of Hagerstown is reaching out to help small business,” he said.
Gysberts said he also supports the incentive programs, but city staff needs to keep better tabs on them and make sure they are working in concert with the needs of businesses that want to be in Hagerstown.
“I think that if we level the playing field; if all businesses are treated equally in terms of the regulations they have to face ... that would be one thing we should work on,” Gysberts said.
The forum was sponsored by The Herald-Mail.
For much more from the forums, people can tune to HMTV 6 (Channel 6 on Antietam Cable) for excerpts of responses from council and mayoral candidates during the week of Oct. 22. It will also be made available online at www.herald-mail.com/hmtv6.
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