Commissioners must control budget in Mahoning County

The Mahoning Valley continues to lag behind the nation in the snail’s pace recovery from the economic recession, which means officeholders must keep a tight rein on the spending of tax dollars. Keepers of the public purse have generally done a good job of setting priorities to ensure a continuation of services to the citizenry.

But the major test will come this week when Mahoning County commissioners meet to adopt the 2012 general fund budget. They should borrow a page from their colleagues in Trumbull County who recently adopted a bare bones spending plan.

Trumbull’s $42 million plan is slightly less than the $42.4 million allocated this year.

“The employees have taken freezes so we could keep the same level of service,” said Trumbull County Auditor Adrian Biviano. “Everyone’s cooperating.”

There’s one word in the statement that should be adopted by the commissioners in Mahoning County: Freezes.

It certainly reflects what has been going on in the private sector for the past several years, and there’s no reason why government should not adhere to the same principle.

Commissioners Anthony Traficanti, John McNally and Carol Rimedio-Righetti hope to pass the budget on Thursday, and the public will watch closely to see just how seriously they are taking the warnings from state government that tougher times loom.

Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly adopted a biennium budget that slashed funding for local governments, and the governor has warned that things may get worse in the near future.

Given that reality, Traficanti, McNally and Rimedio-Righetti must make it clear that pay raises for public employees are out of the question. They can do that by stripping departmental budget requests of money officeholders intend to use to increase compensation for their employees.

Indeed, even those departments that do not receive money from the general fund should be told that pay raises are not acceptable public policy in the midst of an economic recession.

At the end of the budget hearings last week, an analysis of the requests from the general fund departments showed $7.32 million worth of wage increases, additional staffing and additional operating and capital expenses.

Wish lists

Do the commissioners give in to such demands, or do they go through the wish lists with a fine-toothed comb and determine which items are essential to the health, safety and welfare of residents. The answer is obvious.

What is also clear is the choice between pay raises and layoffs.

The county’s budget commission has certified $47.9 million in revenue for 2012, compared with the $54.5 million certified this year. There is the possibility of a $3.1 million general fund carryover, but when added to the projection for 2012, the total is still less than what was available in 2011.

In other words, there isn’t any money for frills.

This is an opportunity for Mahoning County commissioners to take aim at the status quo. More than 80 percent of government’s operating budget goes for salaries and benefits, which means a review of each department’s payroll is demanded. The money just isn’t there to give in to all the demands, and the future prospects are bleak, at best.

Having a job in this economy, especially one that pays a decent salary and offers health care and pension benefits that are superior to what most workers in the private sector receive, is a bonus, in and of itself.

Officeholders will suffer the wrath of the voters if they throw caution to the wind and approve pay hikes and other compensation boosts for their employees.

Commissioners Traficanti, McNally and Rimedio-Righetti have the responsibility to say “no.”

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