Sinking into the Red

By Denise Dick

The police-and-fire levy that voters approved last year is generating revenue at anticipated levels.

BOARDMAN — The township’s fiscal officer expects the state auditor’s office to declare Boardman in fiscal watch this week.

That state designation means that expenditures are outpacing revenues. It’s a precursor to being declared in fiscal emergency, which would mean the state would come in and supervise spending.

Representatives of the state auditor’s office, which the township asked to analyze its finances, are scheduled to give a report at the regular trustees meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the township administration building on Market Street.

“If they don’t [declare us in fiscal watch], we’ll be there by Jan. 1,” said William Leicht, township fiscal officer.

He said a police-and-fire levy approved by voters last year is generating revenue at anticipated levels, but overtime in both departments has put a dent in it.

“We believe we were right on in revenue projections of $16 million for the year,” Leicht said, referring to 2009.

The 2.2-mill police-and-fire levy approved last year was projected to garner about $2 million annually.

The police and fire departments, though, have racked up overtime of more than $400,000 — $300,000 in police and $100,000 in fire.

When the township announced last month that one of its three fire stations would close to help control fire department overtime, township officials said that the levy wasn’t generating what was anticipated because of the lagging economy.

Leicht now says that was a misinterpretation of the numbers.

At the beginning of the year, the township borrowed $3 million to get through the first quarter. Though some other townships routinely borrow, it was a first for Boardman.

When that loan was repaid, the money was taken from various funds — police and fire included — according to direction from the state auditor’s office, Leicht said.

When township officials looked at the financial report that reflected the repayment, they believed it showed revenues at a level lower than projected, he said.

“I haven’t discussed it with the fiscal office,” said Jason Loree, township administrator.

Trustees Chairman Larry Moliterno said he also plans to meet with Leicht.

At a meeting last July, trustees pegged $15.8 million as the amount to appropriate for next year.

“Come Oct. 14, if that number changes, we’re going to have to come up with a new plan,” Loree said.

Leicht, who’s in his fourth term, said he wouldn’t have believed a few years ago that the township would be at the brink of fiscal watch.

“I’m embarrassed,” he said.

For years, though, he’s been warning of pending financial problems if costs aren’t controlled.

At a strategic planning meeting with elected officials and department heads in late 2005, Leicht said that 2006 expenditures exceeded revenues by about $2 million.

For several years, the township relied on its reserve fund to cover shortfalls between revenues and expenditures rather than asking voters to approve a new tax, township officials said.

That fund mostly came from inheritance tax from estates of residents who died.

Many years ago, former trustees decided not to ask residents for additional tax dollars while the pot of inheritance tax was available. That money has dried up.

The township closed one fire station earlier this month to try to reduce overtime.

Loree said that since the rotating fire station closings, the fire department’s overtime has been under control.

“There are acceptable levels of overtime,” he said. Both departments “are doing all right for where personnel is in each department. We can always do better.”

Loree said that an unusually high number of firefighters injured on duty contributed to that department’s overtime.

Both the police and fire departments are down personnel.

In campaigning for the 2.2-mill safety levy last year, trustees promised to recall laid-off firefighters and to hire “up to 10 police officers.” Six of the nine furloughed firefighters were called back to work — one has since left, and another firefighter died — after levy passage.

One police officer has been hired.

Leicht says that much of the police department’s overtime is because the department is short-staffed.

The police department, which boasted 63 officers three years ago, is down to 47. Officers who have resigned or retired haven’t been replaced.

Police Chief Jack Nichols has made adjustments to control overtime, such as moving officers from special task forces to patrol duty.

Hiring more officiers would not immediately reduce overtime costs, because it takes several months from the time new officers come on board to train them to patrol on their own.

A new patrol officers’ contract approved last week calls for lower starting pay and salary schedule for new hires. Leicht believes that will help the township hire new police.

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