Girard Mayor James Melfi had a smile in his voice — yes, in his voice — as he explained the reason for his telephone call to this writer: Youngstown officials tried to pull a fast one on Girard and got caught.
The mayor does tend to smile — it’s more like a you-know-what grin — when he gets the better of his neighbor to the south. It’s been that way ever since the brutal negotiations a couple of years ago over land sought by V&M Star for a new, state-of-the art steel pipe making facility. More than 100 acres in Girard is dedicated to the $650 million project, but Youngstown city government officials are calling the shots because of V&M. The company, which has a steel mill in the Brier Hill area, approached Youngstown with the new project and chose it to be the lead community. As a result, 121 acres of Girard along Route 422 has been annexed to Youngstown.
That has not gone over well with Melfi and other officials, seeing as how the project was dependent on their cooperation. Nonetheless, the mayor has been willing to be a silent partner — so long as the terms and conditions of the agreement between the two cities over such things as the sharing of taxes and other fees are honored.
Thus, when Melfi found out that Youngstown had collected fees from permits secured by V&M Star, but had not given Girard its share of the money, he was like a possum doing whatever possums do.
What made his gotcha moment even sweeter was the fact that Youngstown officials had assured him and others that they would not be charging V&M — the company’s parent, Vallourec, is based in Paris — for any permits required during construction.
After getting confirmation that Youngstown had received $225,380.34 in late 2010 — it refunded V&M 65 percent of the money several weeks ago — Melfi asked for Girard’s share via three registered letters sent by a lawyer hired by the city.
He got no response, which is why he let slip to The Vindicator that he was willing to go the mat with Youngstown on this issue. His message: Don’t treat us like some country bumpkins.
When Youngstown officials, including Mayor Jay Williams, were contacted by The Vindicator about the nonpayment, they acknowledged that the money was owed Girard — and agreed to pay.
But even after being caught trying to be too clever by half, Mayor Williams couldn’t refrain from taking a shot at Melfi.
“Man up, pick up the phone and tell me you’ve got an issue,” he said.
To which Melfi replied: Do your job.
Here’s the problem confronting Williams and all the other city officials with visions of grandeur: They are operating the fastest shrinking community in the Mahoning Valley and no longer intimidate or scare any of their neighbors.
There was a time when Youngstown mattered, but now, with a population of 66,000, with a huge inventory of abandoned and dilapidated houses, with crumbling neighborhoods, with an unacceptably high crime rate and with the reality that most residents do not pay income tax because they are on Social Security or welfare, the city has become the weak link in the Valley.
Williams et al should learn the two words that will go a long way toward building bridges with Youngstown’s neighbors: Thank you.
Rather than trying to get the better of the suburbs — the folks in Austintown and Boardman still chuckle at Finance Director David Bozanich’s idiotic attempt to use water as a negotiating threat — city government should focus on what’s real.
Given that Youngstown lost 18 percent of its population in the last decade, the first thing all city officials should do, starting with the mayor, is take an 18 percent pay cut. That goes for the three municipal judges, too.
Then, they should begin the process of downsizing government: Get rid of one of the municipal court judges; get rid of two city council seats; get rid of the position of mayor and create the position of city executive; privatize the police and fire departments (blame this one on Republican Gov. John Kasich), and finally, order all city employees who live outside Youngstown to return, or else face unbearable work conditions.
Or, city government could adopt the song, “Turn Out The Lights,” as Youngstown’s anthem.