Meadville Tribune

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November 15, 2012

Some City Council members concerned budget cuts taking serious toll on city

MEADVILLE — At what point does budget cutting reach a point of diminishing returns — or even become counterproductive?

Concerns that the City of Meadville’s municipal tipping point may have been reached emerged Wednesday night when council members sat down for their first round of discussions focusing on the city’s 2013 budget.

Long discussions with the city’s police and fire chiefs, an examination of the proposed budget for the city’s public works department and a detailed explanation of the city’s public parking system repeatedly returned to common ground: the city was now paying a price for years of trimming the city’s budget by trimming city employees. Specifically, things aren’t getting done the way they used to be — and some of those things are costing the city money.

Councilmember Nancy Mangilo-Bittner observed that whenever she looks around the new city building and sees the small number of employees remaining, she can’t avoid thinking that they’ve cut too far.

Mayor Christopher Soff noted that when city employees Liz Vinch and Deb Berasi retired during the most recent round of personnel cuts, they took years of practical experience with the ins and outs of the city’s parking system with them.

“We don’t have the staff to manage our system well,” Assistant City Manager Andy Walker said, pointing out that significant chunks of his day are often spent fielding what should be routine problems and questions about parking.

“Is it in the best interest of the city to have our assistant city manager dealing with parking issues?,” Soff wanted to know.

The question facing council is how to balance a budget whose preliminary version shows a deficit of $328,000. Creating a balance by raising property taxes would require an approximately 2-mill property tax increase to close the gap. If — and that’s a very big “if” at this point — put into effect, the increase would boost the current 20.92 mills to 22.92 mills, boosting the tax bill for a city residence with the median assessed value of $25,000 by $50 to a new total of $573.

Parking, however, was just the tip of the staffing iceberg revealed during Wednesday’s session.

In a written memorandum accompanying his department’s proposed budget, “I really need to hire a police officer to bring the compliment where we were in 2009,” Police Chief Dave Stefanucci wrote, setting the tone for the evening’s discussion.

“We have been pushing the men far beyond what they should be as far as working overtime to cover the manpower,” Stefanucci continued. “The extra overtime results in officers not getting their holidays off, some being overworked as they are forced in on overtime, which is causing more sick time to be used. We are always short handed due to sick time, training, officers scheduled time off and court schedules.”

In his cost-benefit analysis, Stefanucci pointed out that “this 22nd officer will take off the pressures of other officers being overworked. Bring in more revenues through traffic and crimes code. Make a safer city. Ease the cost of the overtime that has been and is being spent. The savings of the overtime and the increased revenues will just about cover the new officer’s salary. What is not covered is a small price to pay for the citizens’ safety.”

The discussion will continue Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. After the second public hearing to receive input on the budget — available online at cityofmeadville.org — and a brief monthly meeting beginning at 6 p.m., council will continue its examination of the budget. Focus will be on sections of the budget dealing with the Treasurer, City Clerk, City Manager, Council, the city’s attorney, the finance department, general government revenues and special funds. Plans call for adoption of the city’s 2013 budget and tax ordinances during council’s Dec. 19 meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. in the new city hall on Diamond Park.

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