County fiscal officer predicts grim budget outlook for year

The county will have available about $20 million less than what it spent in 2004.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County's financial condition is a mess, and the commissioners have their work cut out for them to make ends meet, the county's chief fiscal officer said.
"Without question, I have never confronted a financial situation as bad as the one we are facing in Mahoning County this year," said county Auditor George Tablack. He painted a bleak financial picture at the commissioners' annual reorganization meeting Monday.
The county's half-percent sales tax ended Dec. 31 after voters turned it down twice in 2004. The tax brought in between $13 million and $14 million yearly, or about 25 percent of the county's revenue.
The county budget commission has passed a spending certificate this year of $34 million, and that may increase to about $38 million. But that is far less than the $54 million the county spent last year, and budget requests for this year total $57 million.
$250,000 too much
Commissioners in late December passed a temporary appropriation of $12 million for the first four months of 2005, but Tablack says officeholders should not believe there will be $48 million available .
"We are only going to have between $34 million and $38 million to spend this year. My belief is we are spending $250,000 a week that we don't have," Tablack said.
He added that the county has been losing money for six straight years.
"We compound the problem each day we delay to take action" such as layoffs and other cutbacks, he added.
He said that is why he tried to persuade the outgoing board to pass a full-year appropriation for 2005 last year so officeholders would know where they stand and what personnel actions they needed to take.
"We can't maintain the basic, fundamental services of county government and also have a balanced budget. This won't happen," Tablack said, adding that he believed the county already is in a deficit-spending situation.
Commissioners Anthony Traficanti, John McNally IV and David Ludt oversee the county's general fund budget and allocate money for departments that get their revenue from that fund.
Traficanti, elected board chairman, said he appreciated Tablack's forecast and his frankness. He said elected officials are "in this thing together" and every officeholder and department head has a stake in making sure county government operates efficiently.
"The budget hearings will be open to the public, and they will be marathon sessions," Traficanti said, adding he has an open-door policy and wants to hear and consider ideas and suggestions.
Ideas wanted
Among the ideas the commissioners will consider is Tablack's proposal to establish an audit committee. That committee would be primarily composed of private-sector residents with backgrounds in finance and accounting that would oversee county accounting practices and spending. The panel would also have the ability to suggest to commissioners changes to better operate county government.
Joseph Caruso, assistant county administrator, said budget hearings are scheduled to begin Jan. 19 and conclude Feb. 2. Commissioners, by law, must pass a full-year budget by April 1.
Tablack suggested that instead of the usual budget hearings, where officeholders bring in wish lists, officeholders should bring in budgets comparing and explaining their operating differences between 1999 and this year.
He chose 1999, the last year the county's general fund budget was about $37 million.

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