How did we get here?

July 8, 2013

- ROSANNA LANDIS WEAVER -

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BY ROSANNA LANDIS WEAVER — Here are some of the unpleasant realities of Hyattsville’s fiscal situation: There is less money coming in and our obligations are growing. In other words, less income and more expenses. Dealing with these realities will require commitment on the part of all players to work in good faith.

While the solutions must be found here, many of the roots of the problems are beyond the purview of Hyattsville.

Falling revenue based on falling real-estate assessments are a direct result of the financial crisis that began in 2008. What caused the cascading collapse of the real estate market, which is behind the decline in revenue of over $1 million this year alone?

I’ve seen many discussions of Wall Street’s culpability, but none that accuse Gallatin Street of playing a role. Yet our town, like so many others across the country, must struggle with declining revenue. (Hyattsville is later in dealing with this than many municipalities, because though assessments began falling a few years ago, until this year the addition of new properties kept revenue at least flat.)

Likewise, in all the articles I’ve read about the rising cost of health care, aging populations, and the financial implications for society of these fundamental changes, none have mentioned either our mayor or city council members. Perhaps past Hyattsville city officials — and indications are that they must have been long past since these benefits have been in place for 20 years — failed to accurately anticipate the costs they would entail, but it’s current officials that must make decisions before the costs rise more.

Other local municipalities have dealt with declining revenue by raising the tax rate so that the amount of revenue would remain the same, or even increase. Many towns and cities have reduced health benefits for employees and retirees, sometimes drastically, and taken action sooner to address the increasing liabilities such plans create.

For now the mayor and city council have kept our tax rate the same, and seem committed to finding a fair and reasonable way to address OPEB obligations while honoring the employees who have given so much to the city.

It is likely that decisions will be reached soon; this council is very engaged in the specifics of the issue and seems ever closer to finding a compromise. Since six of the 10 have been in office just since May, it seems reasonable that they ask questions as they make the difficult decisions prior councils were unable or unwilling to resolve.  I’ve been impressed with the thoughtful questions. Under the new plan, what would happen if a police officer was shot on the job and retired on disability before he’d earned enough years be eligible under OPEB?  The level of compassion in that question reflects well on council members, and on their commitment to be fair to employees.

The Hyattsville Life & Times has a policy of not taking positions on city government issues. We won’t endorse one OPEB scenario over another, or say whether we think it is wise to combine two events to save money.  However, it should not be controversial to endorse a general policy of open, honest, respectful communication.  Readers are advised to consider whether the paid advertisement taken out by the mayor  moves us in that direction.

I hope all parties will focus on resolving current problems rather than positioning themselves to avoid blame for the situation we face together. As always when wrestling with such challenges, the devil is in the details, but the devil doesn’t have to be in how we treat each other.

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