City leaders, residents play same financial song

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2005

Talks about Ironton's finances may sound like a broken record, but that is because the tune has not changed.

The city continues to spend approximately $500,000 more than it brings in each year. Drafts of the 2005 budget show the city depleting its carryover to make up the difference and the plan does not account for other obstacles that are expected this year, prompting Chairman Jim Tordiff to say the city has a $1 million problem.

In an effort to generate new ideas, the mayor and city council hosted an open workshop Wednesday to discuss the problems and try to find solutions. Much of the debate would sound familiar to most as the city's problems were boiled down to two options: Cut services or increase revenue.

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"We're doing a lot with a little. I am impassioned to say that we can do a lot more with a little more," Elam said as he nearly pleaded with council to adopt some form of fee or revenue generating plan. "We can't keep cutting and cutting."

Elam said they have studied the budget, most specifically the nearly $4 million general fund and cannot find much more fat to be cut from an already depleted workforce.

Members of the audience urged council to do something to fix the problem but the majority of council stood firm that they believe more can be done to change the way the city operates before simply throwing more money at the problem.

"I think I came here to hear some new ideas. That is what we were told," Councilman Jesse Roberts said of the meeting that came barely 24 hours after the council received the latest budget. "I didn't hear any (new ideas). I heard a lot about the $10 fee."

"I still don't have anybody outside the people in this room coming to me and saying they support the fee."

As it has for much of last year, the mayor's proposal for a $10 per month, per household municipal fee again dominated discussion. The plan has been voted down at least three times and other similar proposals have been defeated as well.

But at least to those in the audience, the proposal seems like a no-brainer. And may not even be enough.

"I'm for this $10 fee. Hell, I'll go for $20," Charlie Kouns, longtime resident and former city health sanitarian, shouted in his gruff voice. "You are devaluing our property by not passing it."

Tordiff agreed that $10 might just be a starting point because it was not passed last year.

"If we had passed the municipal fee last year when the mayor asked us to (the carryover) would be more than $800,000," he said.

Councilman Bill Nenni told the audience that he supported the reciprocity change that will help in 2006. Nenni said he also supported a $3 and a $5 fee that would have passed if Tordiff had supported it.

Most of the audience simply called for some type of action after the issue has been debated for months and even years.

"If you have a plan in the back of your mind, I'd love to see you throw it out on the desk," said city employee Kenny Miller. "I would like to look at it myself."

Councilman Roberts said he has some ideas that may help but needs more time to look at the newest budget. Bob Isaac and Brent Pyles both agreed that every avenue must be explored before passing a fee; something they don't feel has been done.

Eliminating the dispatching in the Ironton Police Department and combining it with 911 may not be a new idea but it was brought back to the table Wednesday. According the officers in the department, the idea may help save some money but could cost the city something far more precious: Lives.

After 25 years with the police department, dispatcher Jeannine Reed has seen it all. She knows first-hand what the position entails and she laid it all on the table for the council to see.

The long laundry list of things the dispatchers do include handling all the money for the IPD and other bonds, using the specialized computer system to provide police officers with vital information such as warrants, criminal history, license checks, filing daily payroll, maintain the police log and a variety of other duties.

"It is all for the officers' safety and for the safety of the citizens of Ironton," she said. "Š Turning it over to 911 may look good in your budget books but you get what you pay for," she said. "With the dispatchers, you get more than you are paying for."

Police Chief Bill Garland took it a step farther.

"The dispatchers are the heart of the police department," Garland said. "You can cut them and let's go to one officer on the roads. We will all suffer the consequences."

Tordiff and other councilmen agreed that police cuts may not be the solution. Mayor John Elam also opposes the idea but wanted to look at all alternatives.

The entire issue may be a moot point if the county does not agree to such a plan. At least right now, the county commissioners do not support the plan, Tordiff said.

The approximate $150,000 hole in the budget created when voters nixed the floodwall replacement levy in November also was the focus. Several in the audience thought that it should not have been on the ballot the same time as the income tax increase.

To allow for more opportunities to pass it before funding ran out, the issue could have been placed on the ballot in November 2003 or in March 2004 but it was not.

The reason for the problem was disputed. Roberts placed the blame on the council and other officials who do the best they can but made a mistake. Tordiff deflected more blame to the finance department because of an "oversight."

Finance Director Cindy Anderson said it was not an oversight at all but simply the circumstances that included an early deadline for the March primary and the change on council and in the mayoral office.

City leaders have until March 31 to come up with a balanced budget.