Warren officials cite state cuts for fiscal woes

WARREN – The need for a 0.5-percent income tax increase can be, in part, traced directly to the reduction of the state’s local government revenue fund 50 percent and the elimination of the state’s inheritance tax, city officials told a sparse crowd of residents attending a community meeting at the Packard Park Shelter House Wednesday evening.

City Auditor Vince Flask told the fewer than a half dozen residents in the audience that the combined $1.2 million losses from these funds that the city fomerly received nearly match the expected $1.5 to $1.7 million budget deficit expected in 2017.

Council President Jim Graham said it was sad that so many people went to Packard Music Hall to see “The Price Is Right” and so few chose to attend a meeting about the city’s financial future.

More than a dozen city employees, including off-duty police and firefighters, as well as department heads, filled the mostly empty room in an effort to convince any resident that would have attended about the need for the increase.

Mayor Doug Franklin emphasized that lower state revenues coming into local communities have caused other communities, including Cleveland, Howland, Niles and Bazetta, to seek tax increases, so they could balance their budgets.

“This is not only a Warren problem,” Franklin said. “It is cutting across the state. It is affecting large affluent communities and smaller communities.”

After addressing the budget deficit, the money earned from the new tax will be used to increase the size of the police and fire departments by eight to 10 members each and to establish a road maintenance program that would provide a minimum $500,000 a year for the upkeep of city streets that do not qualify for state or federal grants.

Paul Makosky, director of the city’s engineering department, said an effective road maintenance program would cost $1 million a year.

Former Councilman Ron White questioned how the two-year, $2.39 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, also known as SAFER, grant would be used if the tax passes, since the original tax proposal had the city hiring eight to 12 firefighters and eight to 12 police officers with a portion of the $3.5 million to $4 million a year that would be earned with the tax increase.

SAFER would require the city to hire 15 new firefighters and maintain the current level of firefighters.

“The money for firefighters would be embargoed and used to keep the firefighters hired after the SAFER grant is used up in two years,” Cantalamessa said.

Franklin added that the city is hoping to bring the city’s police force up to 70 officers, so it would have enough to apply for a COPS grant that will allow it to hire even more officers.

“Chief (Eric) Merkel said if he can increase the number of police officers, he would like to increase the size of the Street Crimes Unit,” Cantalamessa said.

One resident suggested the city could raise additional income by increasing fines for people who park illegally around the city.

“When people are given tickets with $10 fines, they laugh and are willing to pay the fine,” the resident said. “Jack the price up to $100 and you will raise revenues. It will also decrease the illegal parking.”

Another resident challenged Franklin on why he did not talk about the impending budget crisis during last year’s mayoral campaign and suggested the mayor said he would increase the number of police officers at that time.

Franklin denied ever saying he would increase the number of officers during the mayoral campaign, saying he was working to control spending as as he was running for reelection.

Councilman Eddie Colbert, D-at large, said the administration has worked to prevent going to residents for a tax increase by reducing the number of police sergeants, lieutenants and captains by one at each level; contracting the operation of Packard Music Hall to a private entertainment company to reduce the amount the city spends by $50,000 per year for the five years of the contract; and by moving its police dispatchers to the county’s 911 Center in Howland.

“We cannot afford to lose any more police officers and firefighters,” Colbert said. “We are at a critical time. The bottom line is we are talking about the future of the city.”

Police officer Brian Crites told the audience that with nearly three months left in the year, the number of calls for service for the police department has already reached 38,500, which is nearly as much as the 39,000 call for service received all of last year.

“We are busy,” Crites said. “We are out from the beginning of our shifts to the end.”

Last weekend, the police department had a shift in which it only had four officers working, and two of the officers were working overtime. Crites said.

rsmith@tribtoday.com