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City pushes renewal of income tax

Warren council members to hold meetings over putting 0.5 percent levy on ballot

WARREN — When firefighters Tom Rush and Shane Preston entered 3233 Tod Ave. NW at 8:36 a.m. March 24, it was less than a minute before any other emergency personnel arrived at the scene.

The firefighters located resident Charles Miller, 49, unconscious on the floor between the kitchen and the living room, pulled him out of the house and resuscitated him.

“I truly believe the 45 seconds made a difference between the man found inside being alive or dead,” fire Chief Ken Nussle said recently. “Moments like this and others are reasons why it is important to keep our stations open.”

Nussle said the department’s two outlying stations are open only because of the 0.5 percent income tax increase that voters narrowly approved in November 2016.

Warren City Council members are expected to have a series of meetings to discuss whether they should place a renewal of the 0.5 percent income tax on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. The first of these meetings will take place at 6 p.m. Monday at the Warren Community Amphitheatre.

Councilman John Brown, D-at Large, is encouraging residents to ask whatever questions they have about the renewal and how the tax is expected to be used over the next five years.

“We want whatever questions that are out there in the public,” Brown said.

Council President Jim Graham asked council members to schedule meetings with residents in their wards to discuss the tax renewal.

The city has been collecting an increasing amount of income taxes every year since the tax passed, according to information from city Auditor Vince Flask’s office.

The city collected $17,380,965.63 in income taxes during 2016, which is the year of collections before the income increased by 0.5 percent from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. In 2017, the first year the income tax increased to 2.5 percent, the city collected $19,765,318.17 in income taxes, according to city Treasurer Dan Letson.

The city collected $ 21,616,200.91 in income taxes during 2018, according to Letson. It collected $22,376,022.75 in income taxes in 2019, according to the income tax department.

Flask said the loss of the 0.5 percent increase passed in 2016 would represent a 20 percent loss of the income tax.

Letson said the increasing amount collected over the last three years has been due to both the 0.5 percent increase and the strength of the economy.

“We have been in recovery for years,” Letson said. “We hit our low since ’08. we had a couple dips, but it has been rising. The economy has been fluctuating up and down, but it primarily has been up.”

“We have seen more jobs, wages, more withholding and more income tax,” Thomas Gaffney, Warren tax administrator, added.

FIRE AND POLICE

In January 2017, the fire department had 49 firefighters, plus the chief, and today, it has 63 firefighters plus the chief. The department’s two outlying stations at 1700 Atlantic St. and 2554 Parkman Road were closed.

Since Jan. 1, 2017, the department has hired 35 new members, with eight resigning and nine retiring.

Nussle admits the fact the city was awarded a $2.4 million Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in 2016 has helped in the staffing of the department. The grant allowed the department to hire 15 new firefighters.

But firefighters who retired could not be replaced using money from the SAFER grant. SAFER grant employees who quit prior to the end of the grant could be replaced using SAFER grant funds.

The grant money was used up in April, so the new hires brought in under the SAFER grant now are being paid with money brought in from the tax.

The tax passage enabled the city to renovate and reopen the outlying fire stations. It also was used to purchase new equipment for the department, as well as update older equipment.

“If the tax is not renewed, there is no question we will have to close the two outlying stations, and we will no longer be able to remain at our authorized strength,” Nussle said.

Safety Service Director Eddie Colbert said the city hired 70 police officers over the course of the three-year period.

“We had a problem recruiting in the beginning, but we were able to achieve the number we said we would when the tax passed in 2016,” Colbert said.

He added that $500,000 per year was placed in escrow in the general fund for the fire department in the first two years because of the SAFER grant.

“That money was part of the city’s $4.9 million carryover at the end of 2019,” Colbert said. “So there was a million available for the fire department.”

STREETS

Paul Makosky, director of Warren’s Engineering, Planning and Building department, reports in 2017 the city did 17 street projects, in 2018 did 19 street projects and in 2019 did 37 street projects paid for in part, if not completely, with money coming from the 0.5 percent tax.

Money allocated for street resufacing was $500,000 each in 2017 and 2018, and $1.1 million in 2019. The additional $600,000 in 2019 was garnered because of a mistake in a grant application that allowed the city to be awarded extra funds, according to Makosky.

SUPPORTERS

Ken Haidaris, co-owner of Sunrise Inn and owner of Sunrise Entertainment, said he is in favor of renewing the 0.5 percent tax.

“We need our safety services,” Haidaris said. “I’m all for our safety forces.”

Dennis Blank, a retired businessman and former candidate for Warren mayor, said the administration has spent the money collected from the tax in the ways promised in 2016 when the increase originally was approved.

“It has completely fulfilled its obligations,” Blank said. “They were very careful because they knew how important this is.”

Blank said the city’s population and the aid it has received from the state has continued to decline.

“The reality is police and fire take up a large portion of the city’s general fund budget, so this is important for the city to deliver these services,” he said. “People have said the city can make cuts in other areas — which is true — but reductions in those areas are a fraction of the percentage of money used in these two departments.”

Dick Thomas, who served on the committee of citizens and administration officials that reviewed the need for the tax in 2016, said there is a continuing need for the tax.

“Residents have a choice to make,” Thomas said. “If they want the level of police and fire service currently available and more street improvements, they will support the renewal of the tax.”

Thomas said the amount of money the city has been collecting has been more than enough to address what has been promised.

“I expect the amount set aside for the roads can be increased from $500,000 to $1 million,” Thomas said. “I told the administration I could look at the numbers sometime next month.”

Thomas admits he does not know how the shutdown from the coronavirus pandemic will affect the city’s budget.

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