STEUBENVILLE - The city administration asked City Council Tuesday night to consider two options in order to balance the budget in the future, including raising the municipal income tax by a quarter of a percent and asking voters to approve a safety levy.
"Increasing the income tax from 2 percent to 2.25 percent will spread the financial burden across city residents and people working in the city. We also need to look at a safety levy to help balance our general fund budget in 2016 because our safety forces account for 60 percent of the general budget," explained Finance Director Stacy Williams.
Williams said her office is projecting an $835,000 general fund deficit in 2016, "if we assume the worst-case scenario."
PURSUING HIS CASE — City Resident Ernest Dokes told City Council members and administration officials he has filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office regarding a longstanding city practice that allows swimming pool owners to fill their pools once a year and have the extra sewage bill waived. Dokes also requested the names of city residents who have requested the waiver. --- DAVE GOSSETT
According to 3rd Ward Councilman and Finance Committee Chairman Greg Metcalf, "2016 is looking pretty murky and 2017 and 2018 is definitely looking bad. We need to decide what we can do to help get our general fund healthy for the future."
Second Ward Councilman Mike Johnson said council must look at spending in the future.
"If the answer is a safety levy we have to look at proper staffing of the fire and police departments. We need to look at staffing and more efficiencies. We have to do something or we have to downsize our government. I want a council meeting where we look at our spending," said Johnson.
"I want to examine our spending before we go to the public for a safety levy," added 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna.
The budget discussion came during a two-hour council finance committee meeting that included a presentation from city resident Ernest Dokes, who told the council members he has filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office regarding swimming pool owners filling their pools in the early summer and having the sewage fees waived.
"I have been paying my water bill for 38 years. During the past three years the city has forgiven $17,000 in sewage bills for people who have requested the waiver when they filled their pool. If those people are not going before the water review board they do not have a hardship and should not be given a break," said Dokes.
He also said he was prepared to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the names of city residents who have had their sewage bill waived when they filled their pools.
City Manager Tim Boland announced earlier this year the past practice would stop after this year.
"It is a program that has run its course, but not a policy that should continue. My decision to allow this to continue this year was based on a practice that had taken place every year. I felt the practice should continue this year but I would discontinue the practice after this year," Boland said.
Williams reported the state auditor team conducting a performance audit of the city's utility operations will meet with her today.
"They have been asking us questions about our policies and procedures and continue to do their work," she noted.
Williams asked council to consider approval of the creation of a drug dog fund, a property maintenance code enforcement fund and a landfill closure and post- closure trust fund.
"If we are going to make the drug dog happen we need a fund in place so we can collect donations. The property maintenance fund was never created, and the landfill fund is necessary as we work to properly close the old city landfill," she said.
Williams also updated council on a recording system.
"I have looked at different options and prices and suggest we look at the $10,000 project that would be funded in part by the municipal court and City Council. I have received three quotes for a system that would allow us to record council meetings and then upload the recording on the city's website," Williams explained.
A comment from Boland regarding a new cell phone plan for city employees who are reimbursed for using their cell phones brought an angry response from Villamagna, who said the city is not following a 2011 ordinance.
"There are a lot of people being reimbursed for personal cell phones. I don't understand why we don't take the reimbursements off the employees. All the people on the cell phone list should not be reimbursed for using their cell phones. It is a convenience and an expense for these reimbursements. I probably use my cell phone for more city business than anyone and I pay for my phone," stated Villamagna.
In other business during the finance committee meeting, Health Commissioner Shaleeta Smith asked council to endorse an application for a $50,000 grant through the Ohio Development Services Agency for a feasibility study into a shared services agreement between the city health department and the Jefferson County Health Department.
Smith said the city health board last week supported the study and appointed Robert Filby and Dr. Paul DiBiase to serve on a feasibility study committee. The county board of health endorsed the concept last week and appointed Mingo Junction Mayor John Fabian and Dr. George Van Weelden to serve on the committee.
During the nearly two-hour regular council meeting, Judy Bratten of the Historic Fort Steuben and Visitors and Convention Bureau updated the administration and council members on efforts to attract tourists to the community as well as other projects, including the city murals program and two farmers' markets in the city.
Council approved several ordinances, including a stiff parking ordinance that will go into effect on Aug. 23 and a new city employee vacation policy.
Also approved Tuesday night was an emergency ordinance authorizing a project at the wastewater plant.
Other ordinances considered Tuesday included a second reading for legislation authorizing the Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority to establish a permit parking program at the Earl Rodgers Plaza and a first reading of an ordinance to use city funds to pay for the demolition of structures at 1525 State St., 1525 State St. Rear, 2119 Glenn St., 3219 Sunset Blvd. and 546 Cedar Ave.
An ordinance authorizing a 3 percent pay raise for the city manager received a first reading Tuesday.
A resolution to adopt the Jefferson County 2013 Hazard Mitigation Plan as the official hazard mitigation plan for the city was tabled after 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul said he was not familiar with the legislation.
Boland reported the Buena Vista Extension water line replacement project is set to be advertised for bids later this year and the installation of the new lines has been pushed back to 2015.
Williams asked council to consider future legislation giving the administration authorization to consider new electric rates through utility brokers.
"We are prepared to sign a new agreement that will allow the city to realize $363,412 in annual savings. But we also need to be flexible when our brokers find a better electric rate," said Williams.
And, Maintenance and Repair Superintendent Bob Baird said Tuesday night the city is considering staying with an Ohio Department of Transportation salt purchase consortium or purchasing salt on its own.
"We will have salt for the next winter and we will pay more for the salt. Last year we paid $36 a ton but we are now looking at $88 a ton. We have a source for salt and we are now looking at our options to make the best decision for the city. Availability is not an issue for this year but the budget is an issue," said Baird.
City Law Director S. Gary Repella said the Common Pleas Court injunction that ordered the Club 106 closed expired Thursday, "and our police department is reporting the club has been open Friday, Saturday and Sunday night."
"We will continue to monitor activities the private club as we wait for a decision by the Ohio Department of Liquor Control on a liquor permit application from the club owner," said Repella.
Council also heard from Wintersville resident Annette Kraina who urged the city to invest in the youth of the community.
"If we don't do something in the next year we will see more violence. I demand you do something. I love this town and want to see something happen in the next few months. I will be at every council meeting until you do something for the kids," Kraina said.
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)