Mahoning County officials have a difficult road ahead

If, as Commissioner David Ludt contends, Mahoning County government is in the grip of an economic depression, drastic steps must be taken across the board to deal with the fiscal crisis detailed in a front page story Wednesday. We don’t know whether Ludt’s characterization is accurate, but we have no doubt that the situation is dire, and not just with the general fund, which is the county’s main source of operating money.

Also Wednesday, Vindicator Reporter Peter Milliken delved into the controversy swirling around the county engineer’s office over the layoffs of 11 workers who are members of Teamsters Local 377. The union has appealed the cuts to the state personnel board of review. County Engineer Richard Marsico and Chief Deputy Engineer Marilyn Kenner contend that revenue from the gasoline tax and license-plate fees has declined to such an extent that a reduction in personnel is inevitable.

The 11 layoffs come on the heels of the nine union workers who were furloughed at the end of 2008 and the five nonunion employees laid off in January.

But what was most revealing about the story was the salaries and benefits the employees are receiving in the midst of the “depression.” And it isn’t only the engineer’s office that’s under pressure due to payroll. At least 80 percent of every operating budget in government goes for salaries and benefits.

Private sector taxpayers, who are being asked to renew a half-percent sales tax in the May primary election, expect county officials to make the tough decisions regarding personnel that have become standard operating procedure in the non-governmental work place. Layoffs, pay cuts, reduced work hours and pension freezes are among the steps being taken in business and industry to weather the national economic storm.

If Commissioner Ludt and his colleagues, Anthony Traficanti and John A. McNally IV, hope to win voter support for the tax renewal, they must propose across-the-board payroll cuts.

Prosecutor Paul Gains announced last week that each assistant prosecutor in his office will take 11‚Ñ2 days off without pay in every two-week pay period, amounting to a 15-percent pay cut, and that he will make a comparable rebate to the county from his $112,000 annual salary.

Gains has notified the Common Pleas Court of his decision because the reduction in assistant prosecutors’ hours will impact the criminal justice system.

But the prosecutor had no choice given the county’s worsening financial condition, and neither do the courts and all the other department that haven’t tightened their belts recently.

Sheriff Randall Wellington has imposed layoffs, but a federal judge will have the final say.

The county’s financial condition makes it clear that doing nothing is not an option. And, neither is waiting for Mahoning County voters to decide on the sales tax renewal.

What the Vindicator story about the engineer’s office has shown is that government employees have nothing to complain about.

Point of contention

Indeed, the revelation about how employees’ pensions are financed promises to become a major point of contention for the anti-tax foes unless something is done.

Not only is the engineer’s office shelling out 14 percent of each employee’s wage as the employer’s share of the pension contribution, but it is also covering the 10 percent the worker is supposed to pay.

This free ride is unacceptable — but it is a practice not confined to the engineer’s office.

Marsico, who has made much of the fact that belt-tightening is essential, should also immediately end the practice of supervisors taking their county vehicles home. Only those who are required to be on call 24 hours should have unrestricted access.

As Commissioner Ludt has said, Mahoning County government is in the midst of an economic depression.

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