Residents foot bill in flawed budgetPublished 9:52am Tuesday, March 13, 2012
For more than two months Ironton leaders have talked passionately about the need to fill a potential half million dollar hole in the city’s budget by living within its means, finding better ways to operate and asking its workers to pay their fair share of expenses.
But, now that the moment of truth has nearly arrived, it appears that the city council will walk away from most of the tough decisions — at least for now — and balance a flawed budget on the backs of the citizens.
Well, more precisely, on their pocketbooks.
The proposed budget would be a costly blow to many of the residents of Ironton, where the median household income is a meager $28,000. According to 2009 census data, one out of every three Ironton resident lives below the national poverty level. Even a few extra dollars a month, when added to all the existing fees and increasing costs of living, can be catastrophic.
Time is running out as the March 31 budget deadline looms. But it is not too late for our leaders to alter the course a bit since the plan won’t be voted on until 6 p.m. Wednesday, which may also be the last chance for citizens to let their voices be heard.
This council appears to be trying to do the right thing and has worked very hard identifying the many areas that need to be addressed. So why waste all the effort and hours of what is essentially volunteer work by making minimal changes and just throwing money at the problem?
All the talk from council about cutting expenses and creating a sustainable spending plan looks like little more than theatrics performed to paint a doomsday picture to justify increasing fees for residents.
Or maybe it is to help council sleep at night.
A bright spot is that the council is finally looking at the budget as more than a one-year plan. Councilman Bob Cleary and the others did a good job of creating a blueprint. The problem is it delays too many of the changes until year two or three of that plan.
The proposed budget increases the municipal fee from $8 per month, per household, to $14, a 75 percent hike, for at least the next year. The council also voted to require those working outside the city of Ironton to pay a half-percent more in income taxes. Both might be palatable for many citizens — if the city tightened its belt significantly in other areas of a budget that has long included more spending than revenue.
So what was done to address those expenses? Not much, at least in this year of the budget.
The plan would help force a consolidation of police dispatching with the county. But this will still cost the city more than $100,000 a year and was among the easiest of decisions. But this cannot be counted on until it is completed. It has been talked about for years and never accomplished. Depending on these savings is premature.
No other jobs were cut.
Employees will not be asked to pay more for their health insurance. Currently they only pay 5 percent of their monthly premium — an amount almost unheard of in the private sector. It does ask them to start paying 7.5 percent toward their retirement, a perk that is still far better than the retirement options most of the citizens being asked to foot the bill have.
Does the proposed budget allow the city to focus on economic development? No. In fact, the budget cuts the economic development director’s salary of $19,000 by nearly $4,000. That provides little incentive to work harder.
The proposed budget does little to actually improve the city, placing a significant burden on citizens who get only more of the same in return.
Although it can be argued that the city should operate like a business or a household, and live with what it has, increasing the burden on citizens is justifiable if doing so helps the city improve and all other options have been exhausted.
Several councilmen have said more changes will be implemented this year but those promises hold little weight or urgency if they are not included in this year’s formal budget plan.
Ultimately, the proposed budget plan does very little to move Ironton forward. It is simply another in a long line of Band-Aids to keep the status quo and delay the tough decisions which must be made.
The city could still make a variety of changes that would make a difference for how the city operates. None of these ideas are personal toward individuals or departments. Ironton’s employees work hard and are greatly appreciated. But the reality is that the culture has to change, and it cannot be left to the residents to foot the bill for an ever-increasing budget that far outstrips the revenue.
Here are some potential key changes that would cut costs, preserve services and provide avenues for the city to grow. They are not perfect and would be tough on city employees as years of inaction on the benefits packages is corrected quickly. But, in the end, correcting these issues now is in the best interest of all of Ironton’s more than 11,000 residents, not just a few individuals.
— Require all city employees to pay 10 percent of their health insurance this year, 15 percent in 2013 and 20 percent in 2014. This should be the top priority because of the significant increases in health care costs over the years, most of which the city and its taxpayers have had to absorb on their own.
— Require that employees pay 5 percent of their retirement this year and move to 10 percent in 2014. If the unions will not make these concessions, jobs will have to be cut to reach the same level of savings.
— Implement a two-year hiring and wage increase freeze. This allows for enough time for the city to get a clear picture of how the budget changes have stabilized Ironton’s future. Then a conservative salary increase schedule should be implemented.
— Transfer dispatching to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, one way or another.
— Combine the assistant finance director position with the benefits specialist position. Hire the most qualified individual who can do both jobs.
— Look at operational changes within the fire department. Ohio law allows room for staffing or shift changes. Do we need four or five people there at all times? Probably not. Could volunteers be used to complement paid manpower? Possibly. Should taxpayers pay for all of the firefighters’ meals while at work? This costs the city roughly $20,000 a year and seems out of line with other cities.
— Cut funding to the Ironton Municipal Court by $100,000 in 2012 and reevaluate for 2013. It won’t be easy for Judge Clark Collins, but he has expressed a willingness to help and he is savvy enough to find a way to make this work, even if it means he has to delay some of his expansion plans.
— Have the IPD enforce all traffic laws in order to stop traffic violations, drunk driving and other offenses. It would make our community safer as well as generate revenue. The police could write 50 citations or more each day with rigid enforcement. Instead we allow countless people to break the law and drive intoxicated. In many cases this leaves it to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which means the state gets more of the revenue from the citations than if the IPD wrote the tickets. Nearly all of the money from fines would stay in Ironton then.
— Charge bars $50 every time the police department is called there to play bouncer for owners too cheap to provide their own security. Add it to the water bill with everything else. Failure to pay doesn’t mean the police won’t come but you cannot operate a business without water service.
— Create an incentive plan of some sort (maybe with income tax rebates, contests, etc.) that encourages shopping in Ironton. Although there are some things that have to be purchased elsewhere, far too many people cross the Ohio River just to save a few cents. This ultimately takes money out of our community.
— Raise the municipal fee from $8 to $10, with the $150,000 or so extra it will generate going solely to economic development. Hire a full-time economic director with a proven track record in a city comparable to Ironton. We need a high-energy individual who can sell the city. Tie a significant portion of the compensation to results. Priorities should be attracting a hotel, developing a strategic plan to market the former Ironton Iron site and other developable property and finding partnerships to fund the Ro-Na restoration.
If council approves the proposed budget, Irontonians have no one to blame but themselves. Most citizens have remained quiet, as this debate has raged.
The old cliché is that you get what you pay for. Ironton citizens are likely to be asked to pay for more without getting much in return.
Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.