In a budget review session Wednesday that focused primarily on the police and fire departments, Meadville City Council members went through the usual steps of inquiring about areas that could be cut and revenues that could be increased. The effort, however, seemed to be performed more out of duty and custom than in the hopes of actually discovering significant sources of savings or previously unrealized income possibilities.

An exchange between Councilman Jim Roha and police Chief Michael Tautin captured the spirit of evening.

The Meadville Police Department budget projected increased expenditures of $241,000 for 2022, bringing the department’s total expenses to $3.52 million for next year.

Considering that outlook, Roha asked, “Where would you make cuts if you absolutely had to?”

With barely a pause, Tautin responded by reminding council of the department’s difficulty filling several positions open since early summer that have left the remaining officers to fill the gaps.

“I don’t really know how to answer the question,” Tautin said. “Right now with manpower being what it is — I see myself fighting this battle, forever trying to get these guys to where they’re not working 10 days straight, 15 days straight sometimes overtime.”

Training expenses, Tautin continued, are kept as low as possible and maintenance expenses, which were well above what was expected for 2021, are difficult to cut.

“Most of my budget," Tautin concluded, "is what I have to spend.” 

Chief Patrick Wiley of Meadville Central Fire Department painted a similar picture for a departmental budget that is projected to increase $65,000 to $1.7 million.

As for enhancing revenue, Wiley pointed to the newly instituted third party billing policy, which allows a billing company to pursue payments through the insurance companies of people involved in vehicle crashes or other incidents that the department responds to.

“The bad part is that with the third party (billing) it depends on somebody else’s bad fortune,” Wiley said. “So I’m not hoping for it, I’m not wishing for it, but if it happens, we’ll take it.”

The department has collected $3,423.38 through the third party billing policy, with payments ranging from $273 to about $1,200. An additional 21 incidents remain pending, Wiley added.

The department has also collected approximately $1,400 through a new agreement with Meadville Area Ambulance Service that pays $50 for each time a firefighter drives an ambulance to the hospital for the short-staffed company.

But the new sources of revenue are not enough to keep up with maintenance costs that are affecting the fire department even more than the police department. Already this year, the department has had an unanticipated expense of nearly $13,000 to repair the frame rails of the lead engine, Wiley said, even as firefighters rely on radios that are so old replacement batteries can no longer be found for them.

The purchase of a new fire truck — a “quint” that will take the place of the department’s aging aerial truck and second engine — offers the prospect of lowering maintenance costs, but it will be more than a year before the new truck is in service. In addition, City Manager Maryann Menanno told council, hopes of assistance in purchasing the apparatus through a federal earmark will not be realized.

“The federal government changed the guidelines, so the purchase of a required vehicle is not eligible for appropriations,” Menanno said.

The minor increases in fire department revenue also pale in comparison to the projected deficit of approximately $805,000 for the preliminary 2022 budget of $11.8 million.

One major driver for the overall increase is an anticipated 25 percent increase in health insurance expenses for city employees, according to interim Finance Director Tim Groves.

The discussion Wednesday offered no possibilities more appealing for eliminating the deficit than those discussed the previous week when the preliminary budget was first introduced: use of some or all of $662,000 in federal COVID relief funds that were not spent this year combined with either a tax increase or staff layoffs. A 1-mill tax increase would be necessary to bridge the remaining $143,000 deficit.

Such an increase would bring the city’s real estate tax rate to 23.92 mills. Each mill of tax is equivalent to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. Thus, owners of a property assessed at the city’s median value of $25,000 will see their annual property tax bill go up from $573 to $598, an increase of $25 annually.

Council will continue its consideration of the preliminary 2022 budget on Nov. 17 with a public hearing at 5:45 p.m. followed immediately by council’s regular meeting and then its second budget study session.

A discussion of expenses related to the Meadville Area Recreation Authority that had been planned for Wednesday was postponed until council’s Nov. 23 budget study session. All meetings are open to the public and take place in the City Building, 894 Diamond Park.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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