Some Democratic hopefuls want to reduce the city's income tax.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The city has the distinction of being No. 1 in the state in two very unflattering categories.
For the past several years, Youngstown has been typically ranked first in Ohio for the highest unemployment rate among mid- to large-sized cities. The city also has the highest municipal income tax rate -- 2.75 percent -- in Ohio.
The city is taking major steps to improve its downtown, particularly West Federal Street, but there are still many vacant and/or dilapidated buildings in Youngstown.
Those issues and concerns mean whoever is elected Youngstown mayor this year will face a challenge in economic development.
Each of the seven Democrats running in the May mayoral primary says economic development is one of his top -- or even the top -- priority. The problems are easy to identify. Solutions and how to implement them are the real challenges.
Many of the candidates say there must be a balance between retaining businesses in the city and taking the necessary steps to attract companies to Youngstown.
Council President James Fortune Sr. said many programs that help companies are already in place that provide loans, grants and tax breaks. But the city needs to let more companies know these benefits exist.
For months, Fortune has touted a proposed recycling training center and materials recovery program as an option that would bring hundreds of well-paid jobs to Youngstown, as well as to Struthers and Campbell.
Fortune cites crime and blight as two major problems that keep companies from coming to Youngstown. He also wants to work with residents to keep the city clean in order to make a good impression on potential business investors.
Tackling income tax
Police Chief Robert E. Bush Jr., another Democratic mayoral candidate, points to statistics that show a steady decrease in crime since he took over the department three years ago, including a 70 percent reduction in homicides.
The top reason why businesses are leery of opening in Youngstown isn't crime, but the city's 2.75 percent income tax, he said. Bush, a former city law director, said if elected, he would roll the income tax back to 2.25 percent. While the city would lose income generated by a 0.5 percent cut in the income tax, the lower amount would attract businesses to Youngstown, Bush said.
Bush said he would rather invest the city's money in established businesses looking to expand and/or modernize than give it to start-up companies looking to come to Youngstown.
If elected, Bush said he would meet with key business people within the first 90 days of his administration, and hear their concerns. He would also hold regular meetings after that with business leaders.
Candidate William Flickinger wants to cut the city's income tax to 2 percent to make Youngstown more appealing to businesses.
Flickinger said the city's downtown redevelopment effort is a waste of time because all it will attract is government agencies and maybe a few bars. He said the city should convert some of the old buildings into apartments to possibly spur growth.
Councilman Michael Rapovy, running in the May Democratic mayoral primary, also sees the city income tax as a problem, and wants to shave off at least 0.25 percent of it.
Rapovy, D-5th, wants to travel west to states such as Nevada and California to attract businesses to Youngstown.
Rapovy's original economic plan called for the elimination of the Youngstown City School District, and the forced annexation of Austintown and Boardman into the city. Neither is legal in Ohio. He is no longer touting that proposal after receiving much criticism from school officials and fellow candidates.
But he says annexing Boardman and Austintown into Youngstown would eliminate a school system he sharply criticizes as a failure. Rapovy said a lawsuit could permit the forced annexation of suburbs into a city if the city provides those communities with utilities. Youngstown sells water to the two townships. If the lawsuit is successful, there would be one school system for those currently in the three communities, he said.
Former council President John R. Swierz, running in the May primary, said he would create a business advisory board to review business plans with him if he's elected mayor.
"We need to keep in contact with current businesses to make sure they're satisfied or if they need something," he said.
Swierz wants a one-stop permit process rather than requiring companies to get approval and inspections from several city departments. State Sen. Robert F. Hagan, another Democratic mayoral candidate, also wants one-stop permitting.
Swierz also wants to re-evaluate the city's tax abatement program.
When the city approves a tax abatement, it is for 75 percent, the most it can give without approval from the school district. Swierz wants to start abatements at 50 percent and increase it yearly based on the performance of the company and its contributions to the community.
State Rep. Sylvester D. Patton Jr., a mayoral candidate, said much of the money obtained for economic development projects in Youngstown came from the state government.
Patton said his friendships with Republicans in Columbus are largely responsible for $20 million in state funding for Youngstown during his nearly eight years as an Ohio House member.
"I like what I've seen the city do over the past few years, and I'll add to it," he said. "Everything done with state assistance is through relationships, and I'm the only candidate in the race with a relationship with state leaders."
Patton praised the city's brownfield efforts at the Salt Springs Road and Ohio Works industrial parks. But an effort should be made to improve greenspace for economic development such as on the city's East Side off Hubbard Road.
Hagan's economic development plan is on his Web site. Hagan writes that too many businesses leave the city because of high taxes and poor service. Hagan wants to make the city more visually appealing by focusing on its gateway corridors, and continuing to revitalize downtown.
Hagan wants to remediate brownfield sites in the city, and use state and federal funds to install utilities making those locations more attractive for industrial companies.
Hagan said the city should focus on advanced manufacturing businesses and create public-private partnerships for research and development. The state senator is also proposing a wireless Internet for the city's downtown.