By Pat Donahue
Several years ago after my losing campaign for Crawford County commissioner, I wrote an op-ed piece addressing what I saw as problems and solutions in the county. I ended with the line, “I really hope we aren’t talking about these same problems four years from now.”
Well, here we are two years later with very little progress. There have been a few minor improvements. The total lack of transparency and partisanship in the commissioners office has improved and I congratulate this board for that. I am concerned about the policy changes they have made which make it more difficult for public input on their decisions at regular meetings, but few others seem disturbed, so they must be finding the right balance on that issue. The finance department now has a link to the budget on their website, not just a list of paid holidays for their employees. That seems like a definite improvement.
That brings me to my second point — growth of county government. Two years ago, the statistics I cited seemed so unbelievable that the Tribune sent a reporter to verify them. The county government just gets bigger and bigger and the associated problems grow, too. Payroll continues to increase and added costs, like health insurance, workers comp insurance and unemployment insurance continue to grow. I will again cite the City of Meadville’s actions in this area. They aren’t eliminating services, they are improving efficiency and providing the services at a lower cost. There is still plenty of room in county government to make some cuts.
My proposal from two years ago was to eliminate 60 positions out of 600. This could be accomplished by attrition, not layoffs. When a position is open, someone employed in what the previous commissioners referred to as non-essential position would be asked to transfer. Sixty positions would save the county more than $2 million in payroll and $1 million in insurance and payroll added costs. This could be a 15 percent cut in property taxes and a big move toward eliminating the overcrowding and parking problems at the courthouse. Sixty more parking spaces would be available every day, and 60 less desks and chairs would be needed. That’s a lot of office space.
Now what about the former Talon building? If I am up to date, the county has spent about $4.3 million on the building at this time. Go up and look for yourself. It is an abandoned shell and an eyesore that devalues the whole neighborhood. The building should be donated to an agency that knows how to develop and fill that type of building. The Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County seems like a good fit, and it is already very active in this area.
Once that decision is made, the current courthouse can be addressed. The repairs that have been done were long overdue and certainly have helped, but we need a comprehensive plan that addresses the future needs of a right-sized county government. I still believe that all the county needs can be met at the present site with the correct planning and construction.
I still believe part of the way to improve the county’s finances are through the care center and fairgrounds. In the current county budget, the care center is just a break even for the taxpayers. In 2012 it lost $600,000. Why isn’t the facility making the kind of profits that its competitors are making? It isn’t providing free services. It is being reimbursed for every patient by someone. The commissioners should establish a Care Center Authority, operated by people they appoint, even themselves if they want. The authority would borrow on the long-term bond market and purchase the facility from the county at a fair market price. This would be at least $15 million. This isn’t a new idea. It has been used very successfully by many local governments. Ask West Mead Township, the City of Meadville or Erie County.
The same approach should be taken with the fairgrounds. There is absolutely no reason for the taxpayers of this county to spend money operating and maintaining the grounds. The fair is extremely profitable and could easily pay the annual cost of maintaining the facility, yet the county keeps budgeting money for it. Another authority could purchase and operate the grounds. The commissioners would appoint the members, again, even themselves. A fair market price for the land and facilities would certainly be in the area of $5 million.
The money raised would provide the $10 million needed to update and expand the courthouse at the present location and the additional $10 million could be placed in interest-bearing account to finance future infrastructure and capital improvements. This would be a multi-generational legacy that we could leave to our children.
These are common sense solutions to our current problems, not “pie in the sky.” The fairgrounds and the care center were built by taxpayer money and should benefit the taxpayers.
Pat Donahue is a Meadville businessman, teacher, former member of Meadville City Council and past candidate for the Crawford County Board of Commissioners.