Good start in Niles, and more needed

Leaders in the city of Niles have made many impressive decisions to live within their means, but as economic difficulties continue to mount even more creative thinking is necessary.

After Mayor Ralph Infante took office in 1992 the city’s financial balances went from $300,000 to more than $9 million in the general fund and from $700,000 to nearly $12 million in the Light Department.

But since the Great Recession the fortunes have rapidly deteriorated. The city has deficit spent, the general fund balance is less than half of its peak and interest income has dropped from $1.5 million in 2008 to $25,000 last year.

City leaders have made many adjustments to handle the financial downturn. Workers in the Health Department, income tax office, cemetery operations, Engineering Department and Sewage Department, once supported entirely out of the general fund, are now more appropriately paid for partly out of the general fund and partly out of enterprise funds for which they do work. For example, the cemetery worker spends about half of his time doing labor for the Light Department, so his salary is split between the general fund and the Light Department Fund.

Niles also eliminated its jail and has not replaced at least a half-dozen workers that have left the safety forces.

But the problems are not solved. Niles safety forces cost about $7 million per year but income tax collections have dropped to $5.7 million. Continuing to shrink the size of its safety forces, especially police, could lead to a spiraling decline if crime that chases tax-paying residents and businesses away.

The solution could lie in a partnership with neighboring departments, especially Weathersfield, whose police officers must drive through the city to get from the township’s Mineral Ridge area to its McKinley Heights area.

Another solution would be to get its health insurance costs under control. Niles spends about $4 million a year for employee health care.

A performance audit conducted by Ohio Auditor David Yost’s office should provide a game plan to pick up where the city’s leaders have left off. When completed, Niles should follow the audit’s recommendations closely.