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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dougherty: “City Budget Managed Poorly”

George Wenschhof

Jennifer Dougherty
I sat down with Jennifer Dougherty recently to get an update on her campaign for mayor.  This is the fifth time she has run for mayor of The City of Frederick and the first time as an unaffiliated candidate.

Jennifer won, as a Democratic candidate in 2001 and served one term before losing in the 2005 Democratic primary to former four term mayor Ron Young.

I asked Jennifer, who is known to go door-to-door, what she is hearing from the voters.  She told me she was receiving a positive response with voters often telling her they were supporting her because “she got things done.” 

Jennifer said they would add, “hope you get a different type of board”, referring to the contentious board of aldermen, she was often at odds with, during her term in office.  Interestingly, Jennifer added they would often ask her “who is the mayor now?”

When I asked Jennifer what was the main issue she was focused on in her campaign, she spent the remainder of the interview describing the poor fiscal management displayed by the current administration.

First, she pointed to the city rainy day fund, which she said the board voted unanimously to increase from the mandated 12% to 17% level.  Jennifer says this action resulted in an excess of $15.8 million in funds.  She said “the city was sitting on cash and not spending on services that are needed.”

She would have rather seen the city using that money to pay down the pension, other post employment benefits (OPEB) debt and for much needed road improvements.

The inability of the city to reach and maintain the current budgeted level of 141 police officers is another example of poor management.  Jennifer said she would run two police academies at the same time with split shifts, until the city reached the planned level of officers. She added the city did more outreach during her administration and in addition to that, she would examine lateral transfers as well.

Overall, Jennifer complained to me the city fund balance was under spent in each budget category with a combined fund balance of $43 million which she felt clearly displayed the current administration was not effectively managing the budget.

The change to tax differential as the way city residents pay their taxes was another example of bad management Jennifer pointed to during my interview. 

The move to tax differential was made by the current administration in an effort to avoid the duplication of taxes by city residents and the previous manner Frederick County government would rebate revenue received back to The City of Frederick.

Jennifer told me the city accepted the formula from the county without analysis pointing to the city of Annapolis who received $25 million in savings compared to The City of Frederick who received $5 million.

Showing me her own tax bill, on a house appraised at $300,000, the average for the city, she claims she was overpaying up to $1,000 for services she was not receiving from the county.

Addressing the tax differential formula is one thing she will focus on as mayor and she will fight for city residents to receive that $1,000 in savings on their tax bill.

The city’s purchase of the Hargett farm for use of a regional park is another example of how the city is managing the budget poorly, according to Jennifer.

She says the city needs to look at all options on the Hargett farm property and complained about the debt service it is costing the city.  Jennifer said the mayor and board had not been able to make the difficult decisions, pointing out to me developers would have paid for road improvements, a school site, as well as water and sewer fees.

Jennifer said another illustration of poor budget management was when the board voted a year ago to give the board of education a portion of the Hargett farm for a school site.  Then, she said the city turned around and recently bought a site from the county for a water tower.  Her question to me was “why did this happen?”  She would have hoped, at the least, a land swap, would have been in order.

The costly availability charge to the city resulting from the Potomac River water services agreement with Frederick County government was another area Jennifer was not pleased about.  It was these terms that kept her from agreeing to the contract with the county.  She pointed out to me, Mayor Randy McClement was not happy with this expense agreed to under the Jeff Holtzinger administration.

Jennifer added she would like to reduce the Homestead tax from 5% to 3%.  She informed me she had reduced it from 10% to 5% during her administration and felt the anticipated increase in property assessments for next year, would keep revenues in line.

As we were nearing the end of a lengthy interview, Jennifer said as mayor she would also move to lower the personal property tax businesses pay in the city, by 50% and eliminate it in three years.  She told me the loss of $1.5 million in revenue would be made up by the increase of business locating in the city.

Jennifer also pointed out to me alderman Karen Young, who is the Democratic candidate for mayor, voted for every budget and the mayor and board have not been focused on the results.

In regard to the Pension and OPEB programs, Jennifer was again critical of the administration, asking why they haven’t changed the programs.  She wants the city to shoot for an 80% funding level in 10-12 years and not the 20 years the mayor and board have agreed on.

In addition, she would create a pension oversight board to review management of the pension and OPEB programs.

Jennifer told me, I have had the luxury of being mayor and knows what she would do differently if elected mayor.

Concluding the interview, Jennifer said “a sea change is needed in management”, not with employees in the city.”
Registered voters in The City of Frederick will elect their mayor and a five member board of alderman on November 5.

Stay tuned.
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