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Small crowd shows for tax talk

Firefighters were among the largest percentage of the crowd that attended the first public meeting specifically called to discuss Warren City Council's decision to place a renewal tax on the November ballot. Staff photo / Raymond L. Smith

WARREN — A sparse showing at the Warren Community Amphitheatre on Monday could indicate that residents are not clamoring to learn about a proposed 0.5-percent income tax renewal.

Having 6-foot social distancing was not a problem for the 20 to 25 people there, who were nicely spread out in the spacious outdoor venue at Perkins Park.

Because city council is in the midst of trying to decide whether to place the income tax renewal on the November ballot, they held the first of what is planned to be a series of meetings to allow residents to talk about their concerns.

Only one resident stood to ask a question.

“I thought it was a scam that the city needs this money,” Dennis Hipple said. “I’ve been trying to pay my city income tax, and no one is in the office.”

Councilman John Brown, D-at Large, responded that the city does need the funds provided by the income tax increase if it wants to maintain its police and fire departments at current levels.

“Director (Eddie) Colbert is trying to address the issue of having someone at the income tax department,” Brown added.

Colbert emphasized after the meeting that the city’s income tax department is not answerable to him.

“He has to talk to (Thomas) Letson,” Colbert said. “He’s an elected official.”

Although obviously frustrated about not being able to pay his city taxes, Hipple said he supports the idea of a renewal of the 0.5-percent tax increase.

“My father worked for the fire department for 43 years and I have a brother who was in the police department for about 30 years,” Hipple said.

Warren resident James Walker, who sat in the top row of the amphitheater recording the discussion about the tax on his phone, later said he was not impressed with the presentations.

“We’ve heard it all before,” Walker said.

“Where are the cuts that were made?” he questioned. “How is the city going to save money?”

Walker said the administration and council cannot keep spending and taxing residents.

“Impound lots are not the answer,” he added. “When Youngstown realized it had to make cuts to balance its budget because of COVID-19, the city made mandatory (personnel) cuts. Warren’s layoffs were voluntary,” he said.

Walker emphasized that hard decisions have to be made.

“Let the city go bankrupt,” Walker said. “Let the state take over and operate it properly.”

Although it was initially difficult, Colbert said the police department eventually reached 70 officers. However, it has been difficult for both the police and fire departments to stay at their respective full strengths.

The fire department’s full strength is 65 firefighters, including the chief.

“The first three people I hired after becoming safety service director were police officers,” Colbert said.

Assistant fire Chief William Monrean said since the 0.5-percent income tax passed in 2016 and the department received its second SAFER grant, the department has hired 44 firefighters, but only has been able to retain 19.

Both the fire and police departments have had retirements of longtime personnel, while some of the newer officers moved on to more secure, better paying positions.

Monrean emphasized buying firefighting equipment for new firefighters costs the city about $2,800 per set.

“The turnout gear is made specifically for that officer, so it cannot be given to someone else,” Monrean said.

Law Director Enzo Cantalamessa told residents he understood why the city today, as it did in 2016, is placing the tax as a renewal instead of a permanent tax.

“People want to see if the administration and the council would do what they said they would do,” Cantalamessa said. “The money cannot be used for any other purpose.”

However, Cantalamessa added he also understands why firefighters, police officers, and even some members of the administration and the city auditor would want the tax to be permanent for planning purposes.

“Who can blame a firefighter who has his resume sent out to other cities around Ohio, or elsewhere across the country, when they have to depend on voters having to decide whether they want to renew a tax,” Cantalamessa said. “They have to look out for their families and their careers.”

Councilman Ronald White, D-7th Ward, agreed that the tax is needed to maintain the departments at full strength, but added most people don’t want it to be permanent.

“With what is happening with police departments across the country — not what is happening here — people want some level of control by keeping the tax temporary,” White said.

rsmith@tribtoday.com

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