Citizens speak out in favor of fee; council to meet again tonight

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

Passion. Anger. Frustration. Community pride.

Emotions ran high Thursday as community members came to let Ironton City Council hear their support for the $10 per month, per household municipal fee. The topic will be the focus at a special meeting scheduled for 8:10 p.m. tonight.

The municipal fee would generate more than $500,000 a year to bridge the city's half-million dollar deficit between revenues and expenses. It would also provide funding for economic development and potentially allow the city to bring back some of the 10 employees that were laid off May 1.

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Still upset with the layoffs, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 771 union now plans to strike at 6 a.m. Tuesday to allow for arbitration on Monday in a last-ditch effort to avert a labor stoppage.

It was a standing room only crowd of more than 100 people at the meeting with at least a dozen people speaking passionately in support of the monthly fee. A few citizens voiced their opposition and supported asking voters to increase the city's 1-percent income tax at the polls in November.

"I have talked to a lot of people, all retired like me. Every one of them is willing to pay $10," said June Washburn, a retired city employee. "We are taxing the working people to death. It is time to let the senior citizens pay their share."

Fellow senior citizen John Lutz agreed.

"Let's not sit here like the frog in the frying pan," Lutz said. "Let's act."

But after everyone voiced their support, council voted 5-2 against suspending the rules to go ahead and vote on the fee. Several council members are not convinced that the fee is what the majority of residents want or it is the best way to solve the problem. Ordinance sponsors Chuck O'Leary and Chairman Jim Tordiff cast the sole votes to suspend the rules.

This does not mean the fee did not pass, council just did not vote to rush to adopt the ordinance. To allow for the proper 24-hour notice, Tordiff called tonight's special meeting to allow for a second reading, with another meeting possible Monday, in an effort to force a vote as soon as possible.

"In my 30 years with the city, I don't know if I have sat in a council meeting where people were asked to give more and seen such an overwhelming response (of) yes," Tordiff said.

Councilman Richard Price said he does not believe the majority of Ironton residents support the fee.

"My phone has rang off the hook the last three days. Every one was against the fee," Price said. "I don't think the support you have seen here tonight is representative of the community."

Councilman Jesse Roberts agreed, saying that the majority of the people he spoke with opposed paying more. Since Wednesday evening, 12 of 13 calls were against the increase, Roberts said.

Mayor John Elam called passing the fee "critical" and emphasized that 85 percent of the people he talked to said they would support it. He challenged council to step up to the plate.

"We are doing our part. It is time for you to do your part."

Just like it was targeted by Tordiff more than a year ago, the financial D-Day has arrived, Elam said.

"Our key to growth or even stability must begin now," he said. "By cutting, or even compromising services, I am afraid you are digging a hole we may never get out of."

Rick McKnight, a founder of the Friends of Ironton community group that has raised $9,000 toward buying the police officers new bulletproof vests and equipment, illustrated his point about making steps to improve the city with an analogy to a football game.

"We need to quit blocking, quit playing defense and go on offense," he said to a resounding applause. "We need to score a touchdown and win for Ironton."

If adopted, the ordinance would automatically be abolished if other ideas to generate revenue, such as changing the reciprocity agreement or increasing the income tax, were passed.

The number of employees that would go back to work would be up to the mayor, but Tordiff said he would like to see all three employees return to sanitation, which is already three days behind on the garbage collection.

Tordiff also outlined a proposal that the employees go into a labor pool once they complete their daily route in four or five hours. The employees would then be used on other projects in the city and be paid from that particular department, with a portion of the revenue generated by the fee.

Even if the municipal fee fails, Tordiff said he plans to sponsor new legislation that would increase the sanitation rates to an undetermined level mandated by the finance department so that the three sanitation workers could go back to work. He also discussed bringing the assistant water clerk back because that fund has no bearing on the general fund and the job cannot be done by one person.

Union President Joe Johnson declined comment until after Monday's arbitration, but reiterated past comments that he believes a strike could be averted if the fee passes and the city makes an effort to start to bring some of the employees back.

AFSCME includes employees in the city's street, sanitation, flood, water and sewer departments, police dispatchers, the income tax and water collection offices and the meter maid. The primary issue forcing a strike remains the layoffs of 10 employees, including eight AFSCME members - three in the sanitation department, three in the street department, a water department clerk and a custodian.

One of these employees has been able to fill a dispatching position that was vacant. In addition, two non-union administrative employees were also laid off - the assistant code enforcement officer and the facilities manager. The vacant position of economic development director has not be filled, something Tordiff would like to change if the fee passes.

Council went into executive session at the end of the meeting to discuss pending litigation. Tordiff voted no and did not attend the closed session in which no action can be taken.

The issue is sure to heat back up tonight.