‘Secret’ wellness plan could fix deficit

NILES — Details of a plan the administration is working on to fix a consistently negative revenue flow at the city’s wellness center is staying behind closed doors for now.

The secrecy raised the ire of the public and some council members at Wednesday’s council meeting.

While Councilman Stephen Papalas, D-at large, had some harsh words for Mayor Tom Scarnecchia about what hasn’t been done to help the center become solvent, Councilman Ryan McNaughton, D-at large, focused his attention on the previous administration’s “stupendously idiotic” decision to eliminate the center’s full-time director.

The center costs about $500,000 a year to run, but only brings in about $300,000 in revenue, leaving a $200,000 shortfall the general fund subsidizes, City Auditor Giovanne Merlo said.

Closing the center would still cost the city’s general fund $240,000 a year in bond payments, Merlo said.

Councilwoman Linda Marchese, D-3rd Ward, said the center has gone on as is for too long.

The center is set to run out of money for the year soon, perhaps before November, and will need approximately $40,000 more from the general fund to get it through the year, Merlo said.

Because changes with the staffing agency happened later in the year than the city planned through its recovery plan, not enough cash was set aside to operate the center, Merlo said previously.

McNaughton is tasked with finding a new hire through his connections with local universities in order to have someone “steering the ship,” as well as finding new revenue sources and programs.

The previous council never should have approved the elimination of a full-time director in former Mayor Ralph Infante’s financial recovery plan because no one has been working to attract new revenue sources, McNaughton said. The former director became the part-time athletics director and is responsible for scheduling and day-to-day operations.

“I sat in that seat right there (before elected to council) and told (council) you would rue the day the city eliminated that position. Now we are up here trying to fix a problem that should have never, ever happened. It was a stupendously idiotic decision by Mayor Ralph Infante — a personal vendetta that cost the city enormously and we are still turning our wheels in the mud,” McNaughton said.

When Papalas questioned why suggestions made in January after the center’s problems were originally discussed with the new administration didn’t appear to lead to changes, Scarnecchia suggested the two meet privately to discuss a plan he said he has been working hard to secure.

Papalas balked at the idea that the public wouldn’t be privy to the plan, and members of the public let out collective groans and whispered about “transparency.”

But Scarnecchia said the plan is in delicate stages and simply not ready to be revealed.

Safety Service Director Jim DePasquale said the plan he and Scarnecchia are working on will “solve all of the problems” and they are working fast to secure key aspects.

However, it isn’t set in stone, DePasquale said, and in order to keep the involved parties in the conversation, until the details are ready, secrecy is a must.

“There are a lot of moving parts we need to make sure come together first,” DePasquale said.

It is unfortunate the city didn’t pay for the Mayor Ralph A. Infante Wellness Center outright when it had the cash balance surpluses to do so, DePasquale said.