Girard's fiscal problems have come home to roost

Last week, Girard Mayor James Melfi made public some ideas for cutting the cost of government, including possible layoffs in the police department. But rather than winning high praise from the state fiscal oversight commission that is directing Girard's economic recovery, Melfi was slapped with an order: You have until June 22 to come up with a plan for balancing the budget and a specific date by which Girard can emerge from fiscal emergency.
"I appreciate the update, but what we wanted is a new plan," Paul D. Marshall of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management told the mayor during a meeting Tuesday. "We need to have an end date in mind and a specific plan or we will wander forever." Marshall is chairman of the oversight commission.
As we noted in an editorial in May when we urged Mahoning County voters to approve a 0.5 percent sales tax, being under state declared fiscal emergency or watch is not a pleasant experience. That's because local officials lose control of the budget and must get the approval of the oversight commission to spend any money.
Fortunately, voters in Mahoning County approved the tax, but county government is still facing tough economic times. Other political subdivisions that are on the verge of collapse would do well to pay close attention to what is happening in Girard.
For their part, taxpayers need to understand that when they talk about punishing officeholders by refusing to pass tax issues, they're actually punishing themselves. Why? Because when the oversight commission takes control of the budget, priorities change. The panel's goal is to eliminate the red ink and develop a long-range strategy for economic stability. There are no sacred cows.
Red flag
In Girard, the $1.4 million debt has obviously become a red flag for Chairman Marshall and other members of the commission.
"I feel a sense of urgency," Marshall said last week. "It's as if we are putting a Band-Aid on a gaping hole."
It should come as no surprise that the mayor disagrees with that assessment, considering the fact that when fiscal emergency was declared four years ago the city's debt was $2.4 million. In other words, about $1 million has been slashed, and Melfi believes that further reductions will occur with the measures he is proposing. In addition to police layoffs -- the department is the largest recipient of general fund money -- the city is planning to transfer money from the fire department to the police department, rescind a contract with SBC for removal of telephone poles, and to seek court permission to transfer to the general fund money received by the water department from the sale of timber and mineral rights.
Finally, city voters will be asked in November to approve a one-quarter percent income tax increase that would generate $375,000 for the police department.
"The operation of the city rests with me and we don't have a gaping wound, we have concerns," the mayor said. "We are moving forward. We have made cuts. We have to maintain services."
That may well be, but in the end it's what the fiscal oversight commission says that counts.

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