Calling for cuts to the police and fire departments specifically, Meadville City Councilman Sean Donahue in an interview provided more details of a 2015 budget plan he unveiled in a column published in the Tribune on Friday.
In the column, Donahue warned Meadville taxpayers they could face a tax increase of as much as 3 mills, or 15 percent — the amount originally proposed in the first budget draft. He called on residents to speak their minds at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
To ensure there is no tax increase, Donahue said in a Friday interview that he would cut $80,000 from the police budget and $22,000 from the fire department. The $3 million budgeted for the police department comprises 30 percent of the city’s $9 million budget. Donahue said he would look at personnel cuts in the department.
The $1.8 million budgeted for the fire department is equal to 19 percent of the total proposed budget. Donahue said the fire department maintenance budget could be cut down.
The remainder of the budget deficit should be eliminated by taking money from the city’s two reserve funds of $2.2 million and $800,000.
“If it was in your own home you’d figure out how to do it (balance the budget without new revenue),” Donahue said.
While the proposed budget currently on display at the City Building shows a $296,674 deficit and no tax increase, council at its Nov. 19 meeting contemplated a 1.5 mill increase.
Since 1 mill equals $150,000 of revenue, it could take 2 mills to make up the budget shortage, according to City Finance Director Tim Groves.
However, Interim City Manager Andy Walker has been directed by City Council to go back over the proposed budget to find .5 mills in cuts.
Donahue’s plan — and decision to speak out by writing a column — received mix reaction from his fellow City Council members.
Mayor Chris Soff said he was disappointed by Donahue’s column and thinks it’s counterproductive to use the opinion page to settle budget disputes.
Soff pointed out that he and the other members of council are also Meadville taxpayers.
“Lets be clear. We don’t like to raise taxes,” Soff said.
Soff said in the nine years he has been involved in city budgets this is the tightest budget he’s ever seen.
Councilman Bob Langley said, “Staff has done a very good job of putting together a difficult budget.”
Langley isn’t comfortable with cutting public safety budgets. He said the fire department has had a big year in 2014, and he wouldn’t want to see what would happen if there were cuts and there were the same number of fires in 2015.
Longtime council member and Deputy Mayor LeRoy Stearns has been through the budget process 18 times and he said he learned an important lesson early on.
“For every action there is a reaction — and you better understand what the reaction will be,” Stearns said.
Stearns said over his time on council there have only been a few times the public has appeared in large numbers at a council meeting. He said council has received a lot of positive feedback about the enhanced police presence on the streets.
Langley doesn’t agree with paying the whole deficit from the reserve funds.
“You can’t live off that. It affects our credit rating,” Langley said.
Langley credited Groves with knocking the deficit down by $350,000 through a bond refinancing.
“I don’t know what we would have been able to do if Tim hadn’t been able to get the bond rate he did,” Langley said.
Through the bond refinancing, council was able to whittle $350,000 from the deficit to get it down to $296,674, Soff said.
Groves said the city’s only revenue source is property taxes, and its tax base isn’t growing.
Groves agrees some of the deficit can be made up from the reserve funds, but not the entire $296,674.
Councilman John Battaglia isn’t interested in taking reserve money to pay for operating expenses.
“It’s pay me now or pay me later,” Battaglia said. “There’s nothing there that isn’t getting kicked down the road.”
Battaglia said it might drop the city’s bond rating to deplete the reserve funds.
But Battaglia understands why people would want the reserve funds used to make up the budget deficit. “The fact is, it’s my and your money in those reserve funds,” he said.
As far as cutting from the police and fire services, Battaglia said the only thing council has absolute power over is how many people they staff.
So for Battaglia the big question is, “Are you willing to pay 10 percent more for services?”
Battaglia also noted the tax base isn’t growing. He claimed that for every new house built, non-profits tear down two houses in Meadville.
Meadville taxes haven’t been increased since 2007, and council will find itself in a quandary when it meets on Wednesday.
“We need to work toward a solution,” Soff said.
What to watch for next
The next Meadville City Council study session is Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. at the City Building, 894 Diamond Park. This will include the first and second reading of the 2015 budget. The final vote on the budget is expected Dec. 17.
You can view
The proposed 2015 City of Meadville budget may be viewed at the City Building, Diamond Park, or at cityofmeadville.org/budget.htm online.
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