Y’town government’s future bleak unless officials act fast

If we were to sum up the findings of the independent review of Youngstown city government conducted by The PFM Group, it would be this: There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — and, in fact, there isn’t much of a rainbow.

In presenting the report to city officials Thursday, David Eichenthal, director of management and budget consulting, was blunt in his assessment of what lies ahead for the shrinking city if steps aren’t taken to change the way government operates. The immediate effect of clinging to the status quo would be a $5.5 million operating budget deficit by the end of 2013. In five years, the city would be facing a $28 million deficit. That isn’t chump change.

Indeed, even before the findings of the study were made public, Mayor Charles Sammarone, who sought the top-to-bottom review of city government, had warned of a loss of income tax revenue as a result of the construction phase of the V&M Star projects coming to an end, and the expected closing of the distribution center at the U.S. Post Office downtown.

The study is part of Youngstown’s participation in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative, which is designed to give struggling communities the resources to spur economic growth and operational efficiency.

“We want to put the city on the road to recovery,” Eichenthal said. “We believe our proposals will put the city in a better position.” There are 50 recommendations; many of them can be found in previous studies conducted by independent organizations and even state agencies.

The problem is that the decision-makers in City Hall have been unwilling to make the tough decisions. Myriad reasons explain this lack of progress, with job preservation topping the list.

Vacant judgeship

A glaring example is the battle being waged by the adherents of the status quo against the elimination of the vacant judgeship in the municipal court. Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. has retired, and the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, has urged Gov. John Kasich not to fill the vacancy. The governor says the Legislature should eliminate the position. And that means the area’s legislative delegation must sponsor the legislation. But local special interests have launched an all-out campaign to not only kill the bill, but to persuade the governor to fill the seat.

The PFM Group study calls for the consolidation of the courts below the Common Pleas level in Mahoning County, but failing that it is recommending the elimination of two of the three judgeships in the Youngstown Municipal Court.

The Supreme Court’s caseload data of municipal courts throughout the state shows that Youngstown certainly cannot justify three judges, and would be hard-pressed to make the case for two.

Sammarone, who has railed city government waste, now has a blueprint for change. He should make the adoption of the recommendations a priority.

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