City of Niles has options to save money

The Niles Fire Department says it’s in dire straits because it’s down to only three operable fire engines and even those are aging beyond their usefulness.

The fire department is not the only one crying in desperation. With the city’s interest and income tax revenue far lower than it was prior to The Great Recession, all departments, especially the police pepartment, which is many officers below its authorized strength and has several cruisers in need of replacement, are complaining.

Hopefully, Mayor Ralph Infante doesn’t pull a Strickland. During a re-election year, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland ignored a massive state budget shortfall figuring he would deal with it after securing four more years or leave the mess for his successor.

Infante is not expected to seek re-election, but it would be easy for the mayor to ignore Niles’ looming financial crisis and leave a mess for his successor. However, as the mess grows, fewer and fewer quality candidates are likely to seek the job, potentially leaving a second- or third-stringer running a city in crisis.

According to the Niles Auditor’s Office, the city’s general fund has always relied heavily on interest and income tax revenue. The city’s interest income is down from about $1 million annually six years ago to about $40,000 per year now. Income tax revenue is down from $6.3 million in 2007 to $5.7 million last year after the closing of the General Electric Co. Mahoning Glass Plant and other businesses.

A performance audit from the Ohio auditor should provide many options to help Niles recover. But in advance of that, Infante and other city leaders should already look at permanent solutions such as more shared services with other communities.

Take the safety forces. Niles is surrounded by Weathersfield, which has struggled to finance its police and fire departments. Perhaps Niles could contract with its neighbor to provide safety services in an arrangement that saves money for both communities.

Maybe Niles should turn its health department over to Trumbull County, a consolidation that is occurring throughout the state, including Youngstown.

Maybe Niles should privatize its sanitary sewer operation.

Maybe the city should consolidate its secretarial, groundskeeping and other services with the Niles school district.

Maybe Niles should contract with the county’s highway engineering department, a move that many communities around the state are finding beneficial.

Maybe there are internal consolidations, such as police and fire departments. It’s time to abandon the archaic 24-hour firefighter shifts in which taxpayers pay employees to sleep. Communities across the nation are cross-training safety forces so firefighters can beef up police patrols and police officers can respond to fires.

It’s important that Infante and Niles’ other elected officials avoid being bullied into raising taxes even more than they already have. Take the argument that Niles should spend more on its fire department to avoid an insurance rating that could cause home policies to increase by $100 to $150. An income tax increase, on top of the one that kicks in this January, would likely be far costlier.