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YOUNGSTOWN Firefighters and officers push for income tax



Published: Sat, August 10, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



More income tax could hurt the city in the long term, one councilman said.

By ROGER G. SMITH

CITY HALL REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Firefighters were to demonstrate in front of closed stations this morning but hope they won't have to do that beyond November.

Firefighters and police officers filed 1,582 signatures with the city Friday. They need 540 valid names to get a half-percent income tax on the November ballot.

If approved, the tax immediately would bring back the 15 firefighters and 11 officers among 60 city workers who are being laid off starting today.

Safety-related workers want city residents to have a choice about the level of service, said Lt. Dave Cook, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 312.

"All we're asking for is democracy," he said.

About 30 members of the safety forces gathered the signatures on 68 petitions between Wednesday and Friday. They had enough names by Thursday morning but gathered as many as possible to be sure, said Barry Ervin, president of the Youngstown Police Association.

The city clerk's office now must hold the petitions for 10 days under state law. The city will send the petitions to the Mahoning County elections board before the Aug. 22 deadline. The elections board must certify whether the issue will get on the ballot by Sept. 3.

The move would raise the city's income tax to 2.75 percent and generate $7.2 million a year.

Closing stations

The city is making the layoffs -- and closing fire stations because of it -- owing to a projected $2.5 million deficit. Declining tax revenue is blamed for the deficit.

Firefighters will picket the first three days in front of a fire station that is closed under the three-week rotation set by Fire Chief John J. O'Neill Jr.

Today, station 12 on McGuffey Road closes for three weeks. Station 9 on Midlothian also may close over the next three weeks, depending on available manpower.

Firefighters being laid off have up to two years with the department, Cook said. He described them as sad and disgusted.

"They're trying to figure out how to make their house payments," Cook said. "Once they hire you, you don't expect to be laid off."

Laid-off police have between nine and 11 months' experience, some of whom left guaranteed jobs with other departments, Ervin said.

Tax increase campaign plans will be made once it's certain the tax will go on the ballot, Cook said. A door-to-door campaign will start in mid-October, he said.

Residents will be shown how the money will be divided -- police, 45 percent; fire, 35 percent; and capital improvements, 20 percent -- and asked if they want staffing levels returned to pre-layoff levels.

"Regress or progress," Cook said.

Long and short of it

Councilman Rufus Hudson, D-2nd, isn't so sure more income tax is progress.

Short-term, a tax raises money, said Hudson, who stopped into the council office shortly after the petitions were filed. Long-term, however, the added tax could drive away business and drain city revenue, he said.

Hudson, a business analyst at Youngstown State University, said companies tell him they are on the verge of leaving the city.

Nobody has compared the long-term effect of more income tax on businesses and residents with the immediate return of police and firefighters, he said.

"We have to balance that," Hudson said. "I don't think anybody's looked at that."

City council could have sponsored its own ordinance to get the income tax increase on the ballot, but a majority declined to do that.

The police and fire unions weren't clear with details of their proposal, so council wasn't comfortable acting quickly, Hudson said. The unions should have approached council months ago when the deficit first emerged -- not right before layoffs, he said.

rgsmith@vindy.com




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