Ironton City Council talks about public forum

Published 10:49 am Saturday, January 12, 2019

Wants structure for Jan. 31 town hall meeting

The Ironton City Council is holding off on a vote about having a special election to have voters decide on whether to raise the city’s income tax from 1 percent to 2 percent.

The resolution was tabled and an ordinance to raise the income tax was sent to the Finance Committee for further discussion.

The reason for the delay was to confirm that the date set falls within the limit set by the State of Ohio for special elections.

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Councilman Bob Cleary said he had talked to the Lawrence County Board of Elections.

If the resolution passes, residents would vote on May 14 for a simple question, “Shall the ordinance providing for a 2 percent levy on income tax for general fund expenses be passed?”

Voters would either vote for or against it. If passed by the voters, the money would go to the city’s general fund to provide for services including the fire department, the police department and public service department.

“They said we should be able to do a paper ballot instead of a computer ballot,” he said. “That will bring the costs way down.”

The estimate for the cost of special elections from the board of election is approximately $40,000, which would be the minimum to set up polling stations, pay workers and count the votes.

Most of the two and a half hour meeting was members of the public talking to the council about the recent fee increases and offering suggestions about how the city could raise funds.

There was discussion about asking people whether they were for or against the raising of the income tax on the water bill since not everyone votes.

Councilman Chuck O’Leary said he was for the idea because it wasn’t possible to stuff the ballot box because it is one water bill per household.

“That would give us some inclination what people want,” he said.
Mayor Katrina Keith said she would look into it but didn’t know if there would be enough space on the new tri-fold style water bills that the city will be using starting in February.

The council did discuss about the public forum that has been set for 6 p.m. on Jan. 31 in the Mains Rotunda in the Riffe Center at Ohio University Southern.

There was some debate setting up the structure of the event, including time limits for speakers and what subjects the event would cover.

Vice Mayor Rich Blankenship said he wanted the event to be constructive and informative and not just “another gripe fest.”

He pointed that they had listened and taken notes at Thursday’s meeting for two hours before they got to the items on the agenda.

“They had some good ideas and good conversations tonight,” he said. “I don’t want to call it all griping. It is our job to listen. But are we causing another one when we have a forum?”

He pointed out that the regular council meetings are held every two weeks and that there is always audience participation. The council held meetings every week or even twice a week in  November and December for a total of 13 instead of the usual eight meetings.

“I don’t know what more we can do,” Blankenship said. “We are here to represent the people.”
Cleary said that they had discussed having a town hall meeting for the past three months and that it was never set up because not all council members could attend when they were tentatively scheduled.

“Now, that we have a little more flexibility,” he said.

He added that while they do get some good ideas, he also didn’t want to sit through another meeting with just people complaining. He pointed out that while they generally try to keep each audience participant to a five-minute time limit, there were people who went on for 17 minutes.

Blankenship said he took into consideration that council members responded to the comments.

“That’s right,” Cleary said, but he also wanted some structure at the forum.

“If we let everyone sit there and hammer the same thing over and over, it isn’t helpful,” he said.

Councilman Jim Tordiff said that since something like raising the city income tax only or cutting services comes up once in a lifetime, he was for the public forum so that people could have their say.

“We are asking for things that are earth shattering,” he said.

Councilman Nate Kline said that since they had talked about the forum, they needed to follow through with it, although he too wanted structure and time limits.

“We do have to keep it flowing, I think people will respect that,” he said, adding that people need to understand that the city is limited in the ways it how they can collect revenue.

“Fees, income tax, property tax,” he explained. “Or we have to do cuts, that’s it. But give us your feedback, let us know what you’re thinking.”

Councilman Craig Harvey said that he disagreed with having a forum but he would be a team player “and be there, as long as there is structure. If this is a willy-nilly, people get to talk for 15 minutes thing, I am not going to be there.”

He said the reason for that is that he has talked to eight of the 10 people who were at Thursday’s meeting before the meeting and they had raised the same exact issues. He said he has talked to people about it at basketball games, at a New Year’s Eve party and someone stopped by his house on the morning of New Year’s Day to talk about the same issues.

“That is my job, I am representing people, but I do it without a public forum,” he said.
If more than four or more members attend the forum, they have to call a special meeting of the council to satisfy Ohio’s Sunshine Law on meetings of public officials.

“So, if it is a special meeting, there will be structure,” Blankenship said.

At the forum, Keith will explain the city’s financial situation and will have informational handouts like she had at the seven forums she had in 2018 at various places, including churches and restaurants. It will be the same as a Nov. 29 Public Utilities Committee meeting when only five of the seven council members could attend and, without six members, they couldn’t conduct official business, so it was turned into an impromptu question and answer  session with Keith.