Niles police chief worried about budget and layoffs

Acting police chief Capt. Jay Holland raised concerns of the city's policemen with Mayor Tom Scarnecchia after learning the city must cut $400,000 from the 2017 budget after the department already participated in budget talks. He said he feared they are right back where they started when voters passed an income tax increase aimed at supporting the departments.

NILES — Lower-than-expected projections for 2016 income tax collections and council’s request to carve out a $200,000 cash reserve for 2017 led the acting police chief on Wednesday to raise concerns about more potential layoffs in the coming months.

“We have some very worried police officers. We thought we were out of the woods when our men and (fire Chief David) Danielson’s men went out and helped pass a 0.5 percent income tax increase last year, but now, with less than six weeks to go in the year, we are being told ‘oops we miscalculated’ and we are going to be down $127,000,” acting police chief Capt. Jay Holland said.

The income tax increase was passed in March.

Officers are worried they are back in the same position as they were last year when deficits led to department layoffs, Holland said. With the police and fire departments being the biggest drain on the weak general fund, Holland questioned if he would be faced with bigger cuts even though the city saved $2 million in health care cost this year and generated more than $1 million in new income with a tax increase that was labeled a police and fire department tax.

And with the fire department receiving a SAFER grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which requires it to maintain staffing, Holland said it seemed like the police department was going to be asked to make the biggest cuts.

Mayor Tom Scarnecchia assured Holland and others at council that no layoffs, in any department, will be used to correct the shortfall.

The city is in a spending freeze — paying only wages, benefits and for emergency items, City Auditor Giovanne Merlo said. Safety Service Director Jim DePasquale said the spending freeze is typical for the end of the year.

City council is requesting city budgeters to set aside between $150,000 and $200,000 for a cash reserve to help bar against emergency costs in 2017.

“In order to get out of fiscal emergency, we need positive balances in the general fund. It doesn’t look like we will start 2017 with a positive balance. We hope requesting this cash reserve will help us keep enough aside to have a positive ending balance in 2017 ,” Councilman Steve Mientkiewicz, D-2nd Ward, said.

The reserve is not mandated, but Mientkiewicz said council could pass legislation requiring the balance if it doesn’t look like the administration plans to do it.

Merlo said he also is combing through fund balances to see what isn’t being spent to try and cover areas with higher spending. He said the process would take time.

The city was placed in fiscal emergency by the state auditor’s office in 2014.

Agitating the problem, projections for income tax collections in 2017 have been revised down by $127,000 from $7.1 million.

Even though collections have hit their mark, and even exceeded the mark in some cases, since collections were revised down from $7.5 million originally predicted, the city could still be looking to start 2017 with a general fund in the red, financial supervisor Tim Lintner said.

Holland questioned the methodology for calculating the projections he and other department heads rely on when budgeting for their expenses.

Treasurer Janet Riser-Jones said her department is working to discover why the projections are not matching up. Some businesses are not sending in as much withheld tax as the office projected they would, Rizer-Jones said, but that could change before the year is done.

Merlo said 2017 isn’t likely to have budget adjustments from the city’s 2016 audit since the city’s accounting practices have improved, and the adjustment for the 2015 audit was already made in September, Merlo said.

However, the city has no way of paying for a city-wide asset assessment the 2015 audit recommends that could cost $500,000, Merlo said.

The city should have an understanding of its assets, the audit released on Tuesday states. It would include everything from chairs to vehicles to the state of the city’s buildings, Merlo said.