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The last scheduled discussion of Meadville’s 2010 budget will take place during Meadville City Council’s regularly scheduled work session, which begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday in Meadville City Building. Final approval of the budget is scheduled for council’s Dec. 16 meeting, which also begins at 4 p.m. at the city building.

By Mary Spicer

Meadville Tribune

Do city residents want a smaller police force? Fewer firefighters? Longer gaps between snowplow runs? Less attention paid to property-maintenance issues? Reduced maintenance of city parks and streets? In other words, what services currently provided by the city can be reduced or eliminated before quality-of-life takes a direct hit?

That’s the question Meadville City Council must answer before the end of this month. However, city property owners may have a good idea Wednesday night whether 2010 city property tax bills for owners of “average” city residences — those with a median assessed value of $25,000 — will stay at the current $523 or jump as much as $34.25 to a new high of $557.25. Then again, maybe not.

City Council members will have a “final” opportunity to discuss the city’s 2010 budget before giving it a first and second reading during their Wednesday study session, which begins at 4 p.m. in the Meadville City Building.

Regardless of the bottom line put forth during the formal readings, however, anything can change before final approval of both budget and corresponding tax notices, which is scheduled for Dec. 16. According to Pennsylvania state law, the numbers must be in place before the illuminated ball high above Times Square begins its annual descent on Dec. 31.

Council members have expressed support for a budget that would hold the line on the current tax rate and Mayor Richard Friedberg has outlined a series of fiscal steps that he says would allow that to happen. However, council members have yet to agree specifically how to reduce the 1.37-mill property tax increase proposed by Tim Groves, the city’s finance director, when he introduced the preliminary budget in mid-November.

“Over the years, cities have eliminated employees who will take over when senior management retires,” Friedberg observed. “It’s a nationwide problem.”

It’s also a local problem, which means that there aren’t a lot of positions left to cut. In fact, according to City Manager Joe Chriest, the city has 14 employees who will be eligible for retirement during the next six years and remarkably few replacements in the pipelines. “The list includes all of the department and division heads, along with other key positions,” he said during his annual budget message. “The chiefs and assistant chiefs of both fire and police departments are all ready now,” he added.

“We have held the line on controllable increases in the proposed budget,” Chriest said, referring to the version including a 1.37-mill increase.

For example, cities of the third class — like Meadville, Titusville and Erie, to name a few — don’t have a choice about whether to have a full-time paid police department. It’s required — and Meadville’s force costs about $167 per resident, according to Chriest’s estimate.

For Police Chief Dave Stefanucci, whose department was reduced by one to a complement of 21 back in 2008, an officer who’s also a member of the reserves leaving for duty in Afghanistan means he’ll be short-staffed for about the next 400 days. One officer who retired and one who resigned earlier this year were recently replaced, but until that happened — and a third officer who was on sick leave for a number of months returned to duty — the assistant chief and both detectives found themselves back in uniform to avoid excessive overtime for the uniformed officers.

Fire Chief Larndo (Tunie) Hedrick agrees that his department has already been trimmed to the bone. When he took over the position of chief in the 1990s, he recalled, he had an assistant chief, a full-time secretary and a full-time safety inspector. “Now there’s just a part-time secretary,” he said. As for finding ways to increase the department’s income, they’re applying for as many outside grants as they can find. “There’s not much more we can do,” he said.

As for grants, “public works stuff isn’t as sexy as police cruisers or fire trucks,” Chriest noted when asked if money might be out there for the city’s streets and parks department.

“The only cuts available are programmatic cuts,” Chriest said. “We would need to decide which programs or services would be eliminated.”

Final conclusions are expected to be reached on Wednesday.

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com.

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