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Ironton officials say finances in good shape

IRONTON — Despite arguably bleak forecasts of its financial future, the city of Ironton’s general fund is on budget through the first six months of 2009.

The current financials, released at a city council finance committee meeting Tuesday night, show the city to be 3-percent above its projections in terms of general fund revenue estimates and right on par with its general fund expenditures.

Adjusted, the city of Ironton now anticipates $4.97 million in general fund revenues to offset the $5.45 million in general fund expenses for fiscal year 2009. The nearly $448,000 shortfall is shored up by the city’s general fund carryover cash balance of $779,146 they began the year with.

Figures produced Tuesday by Finance Director Kristen Martin show the city’s general fund carryover balance is estimated to be at $301,244 at the start of 2010. Two years ago, the city started with nearly $1.1 million in its cash carryover balance.

The committee session, called in the wake of a recent city council meeting and subsequent Tribune articles that examined the city’s tax budget projections for 2010, 2011 and beyond, was intended to “open the dialog” between council, Martin, Mayor Rich Blankenship, the public and the media concerning the city’s current fiscal year and beyond.

In its tax budget produced for the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office earlier this month, Martin estimated the city using nearly all of its general fund carryover by the end of 2010.

Martin told council on Aug. 13 that the figures were “worse case scenario.”

“The purpose of the tax budget is to be very conservative,” Martin told committee members Tuesday. “I really don’t think you can pin the projections for 2011 on expenses until you consider revenue.”

In a spreadsheet produced for Tuesday’s meeting, Martin showed that conservatism has produced variances of at times 155 percent to the positive in what the tax budget projected for the general fund carryover and where it actually finished at year’s end.

The general fund is the main operating line item for the city and must at least balance at the end of each fiscal year.

While revenue for the general fund is collected or transferred in from more than 50 different line items, nearly 85 percent of it is collected from five different fields: Income tax, the city’s $8 monthly municipal fee, general property tax, local government funding and municipal court costs.

Salaries, hospitalization, Medicare and retirement costs make up nearly all of the expenses that burden a city’s general fund.

Sewer and water fees are earmarked directly to separate sewer and water accounts and by law are not to be co-mingled with Ironton’s general fund.

One item both Martin and Blankenship were quick to refute Tuesday was speculation that the recent rounds of raises, bonuses and incentives bargaining and non-bargaining city employees received earlier this year were going to “break the budget.”

In a handout delivered to those in attendance, Martin showed that the 40-cent-per-hour raises city workers received this year make up only 2-percent of the general fund budget and the incentives associated with them make up less than 1-percent of the general fund.

Each 40-cent raise equates to $832 annually per employee.

Martin said many of the monetary incentives woven into the collective bargaining agreements, such as perfect attendance, gun bonuses for police and fitness bonuses for firefighters have to be budgeted, but are not always paid out to their full budgeted amount since not everyone completes them.

One perk city officials did discuss was the pension pick-up incentive city workers currently receive.

Previously, the city had picked up 22 percent of the 24 percent share each employee is required to pay into the Ohio Public Employee Retirement System. Martin said that changed two years ago when city starting picking up the entire share of the employee’s OPERS contribution.

For an employee making $30,000 a year, that additional 2-percent amount equates to $600 annually.

Another highlight of Martin’s handout shows a steep spike in city expenses the past two years.

While Martin said revenues “have flat-lined,” the city’s general fund expenses have skyrocketed the past two years.

Since 2006, the city has seen its general fund revenue increase nearly 14 percent in four years to come in at $4.37 million for 2006; $4.82 million for 2007; $4.83 million for 2008 and an estimated $4.97 for 2009.

However during the same time the city’s general fund expenditures have increased nearly 35 percent from $4.03 million in 2006; $4.46 in 2007; $5.19 million in 2008 and an estimated $5.45 million this year.

Martin said the large jump, especially during the past two years can be directly attributed to city payments to workers compensation, liability insurance, employee retirement accounts and health insurance where the employee share is only 5 percent.

The city announced Wednesday night it plans on releasing figures detailing the $1 million increase in spending during the past two years.

Committee members all agreed that the time was now to start examining the budget to stay on top of it.

“There are areas in the budget that can be trimmed,” said Vice-Mayor and Committee Chairman Bob Cleary who told Blankenship and Martin he felt some of the appropriations were “on the high side.”

“We will not allow this to happen,” Councilman Leo Johnson said when speaking about the city ever falling into a deficit. Johnson said based on what he saw with the current number Martin produced that he feels “comfortable with the current budget.”

However, when asked if the city could every get back to a day when its annual general fund expenditures equals its annual general fund revenues, Martin responded.

“Only if we see an increase in revenues,” Martin said.

The next Finance Committee Meeting will be Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Ironton City Center. The committee announced that they plan on meeting on a monthly basis in the foreseeable future.