Group endorses city tax increase

WARREN – Although several resident grilled city administration on plans for a proposed 0.5 percent income tax increase, the Northwest Neighborhood Association formally endorsed the tax Monday during the organization’s monthly meeting.

Administration officials, led by Mayor Doug Franklin, told the audience of several dozen residents and city employees that the income generated from the increase only would be used for the police, fire and road departments, as well as an annual road maintenance program.

Safety Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa emphasized the money can only be used for those purposes because that is the way the language of the ballot initiative reads

Franklin said the police and fire departments are significantly below the city’s authorized strength.

“We have been blessed that we have not had a tragedy like those that have been seen in communities across the country,” Franklin said. “The last income tax increase this city has had was in 2001.”

Since that time, the city has lost major manufacturers, including Delphi Packard Electric, RG Steel and the GE plants, reducing the amount of income tax coming into the city. In addition, Gov. John Kasich reduced the amount of local government funds coming back to the city by $1.2 million, Franklin said.

“Our projected deficit almost mirrors that amount,” he said.

Earlier reports noted that the projected budget deficit will be between $1.5 million and $1.7 million in 2017 and beyond if the tax fails.

Franklin said a citizens committee that reviewed the city’s general fund budget has supported the idea that an income tax increase is needed. The committee, however, did make recommendation on how the tax money should be used and ways it believes the city should work to keep from having to go back to the voters for another increase in five to 10 years.

Earlier Monday, the administration responded to the Citizens Committee recommendations. Neither the administration nor the Citizens Committee leadership would release the administration’s response Monday night.

Paul Clouser, spokesman for the citizens group, said the committee wanted to review the document and craft a response prior to releasing it to the public. The group expects to release the document today.

James Walker, a resident attending the meeting, suggested the city could have reduced the amount of its debts if it over the years would have looked at different insurance options.

Walker also criticized the city’s hiring through both the administration of former Mayor Michael O’Brien and through Franklin’s first term. Walker said hiring actually went up by 6.6 percent from 2002 until the national recession in 2008.

Franklin argued that his administration reduced the number of people on the city’s payroll by 81 people. Walker countered that most of the reduction was done through attrition, when employees retired.

“Every time government gets additional taxes, it goes into a hiring spree,” Walker said.

Bob Weitzel, who lead the meeting for NWNA, gave his personal endorsement for the tax increase.

“We cannot afford the loss of another police officer,” Weitzel said.

As a graduate of the Citizen Police Academy, Weitzel said he understands how difficult a police officer’s job is on a daily basis.

Cantalamessa said the loss of the income tax would make the city more vulnerable to drug and other gangs from Detroit.

“The lose of between 12 and 20 police officer would increase response times,” Cantalamessa said. “The police department is already only investigating violent crimes that have a suspect.”

Cantalamessa said the focus of the campaign has been on police and fire because these two departments make up about 85 percent of the general fund budget.

The Rev. Todd Johnson, a candidate for Trumbull County Commissioner and a former member of the Citizens Committee that reviewed the tax, gave his endorsement to the increase. He said his home is one block in front of a house that was recently hit by gunfire.

Warren resident Richard Mallory questioned why he should support the income tax increase when two of his properties will not be supported because they are located in other communities.

“You are a city resident and the tax protects you,” Cantalamessa said.