Girard faces tough financial decisions

If there is a silver lining in the state fiscal emergency cloud that now hangs over the city of Girard, it is this: the three branches of government, the executive, legislative and judicial, have no choice but to work together. Indeed, a seven-member fiscal planning and supervision commission will be in charge of the city's treasury, which means that no one person in the city will have the authority to spend at will.
Last month, in the midst of a battle between Mayor James Melfi and Judge Michael Bernard of the Girard Municipal Court, we posed the following two questions: Shouldn't reason prevail? What about a spirit of cooperation between the various branches of government to ensure the proper expenditure of taxpayer dollars?
At issue was the use of the new justice center. The mayor has contended that the project cost the city $5.2 million and that the judge agreed the court would pay half the cost. Bernard, on the other hand, argued that he agreed to pay only 35 percent of $4.5 million because the court occupies 35 percent of the space at the justice center. As for the $4.5 million figure, the judge says that was the price tag presented to city officials when the project was being discussed.
State oversight: But in light of state Auditor Jim Petro's declaration last week that the city is now in fiscal emergency and that it will be at least two years before Girard can expect to shed the state's shackles, the battle over the justice center becomes irrelevant. Why? Because the state commission has broad oversight to reduce spending and stabilize city government's finances.
The commission must approve a financial recovery plan developed by the city within 120 days of its first meeting. Therein lies the challenge to Girard officials. The auditor's office will issue a performance audit that will identify options for budget reductions and will also suggest ways that the operation of city government can be improved.
Also, the 2000 regular audit of Girard's finan ces will be submitted to the mayor and council.
Opportunity: The mayor, council and the court should view the declaration of fiscal emergency as an opportunity for Girard to regain its financial strength and to implement policies and procedures that will given taxpayers their money's worth.
It should be noted that Petro, who had initially anticipated placing Girard under fiscal watch, was forced to take the more drastic step after the city failed to make its semiannual payments of $117,439 on two Ohio Water Development loans and because it is carrying deficit fund balances.
While the residents of Girard can't be happy with this turn of events, the fact remains that more and more communities in Ohio are facing financial difficulties as the nation and state economies continue to falter. The keyword in weathering the fiscal storm is "discipline."

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