Caution must be the watchword as Youngstown city officials decide how to spend the $11.5 million windfall that will be flowing into the public treasury over the next three years.
Why caution? Because the city’s financial future is uncertain, at best. With a shrinking, aging population, a stagnant income tax base, deteriorating neighborhoods, a crime problem sparked by warring drug gangs and a failed public school system, Youngstown doesn’t have the luxury of unbridled or binge spending.
That isn’t our analysis; it comes from Mayor Charles Sammarone, who has been involved in city government for decades. Sammarone has served in the executive and legislative branches and is a former city educator.
He isn’t indulging in a sky-is-falling rant when he warns of tough times ahead.
The mayor, who will be stepping down at the end of the year, has said he intends to put Youngstown on a firm financial footing by the time he leaves. Rather than seek a full four-year term as mayor, he has decided to run for city council president, a position he held for 16 years.
Sammarone has identified three general categories that would benefit from the $11.5 million: economic development, infrastructure improvement and, housing demolition.
But the administration needs to be more specific, which is where city council and the residents of Youngstown come in.
Lawmakers know what is taking place in their wards, while the people in the neighborhoods are on the front lines of the deterioration that has now spread to once stable parts of the city.
“If I’m a business and I get [$11.5] million, I’m going to show my stakeholders a strategic plan for those three years,” said Councilman Paul Drennen, D-5th, a member of the finance committee. “Here’s the money, and here’s the amount we’re going to use for economic development, here’s the amount for demolition. We need a clear-cut plan for the money.”
The mayor and council should conduct hearings in the city’s seven wards to accommodate residents who are unable to make it to City Hall.
This was done during the development of Youngstown 2010, the blueprint for reducing the size of the city to accommodate a smaller population. Citizen participation gave city officials a different perspective of the community.
Rainy day fund
In addition to coming up with a three-year strategic plan, the mayor and council should establish a rainy day fund because, as Gov. John Kasich has preached from the day he took office in January 2011, the public sector must learn fiscal discipline.
When Kasich became governor, it faced billions in deficits; today, it has almost a half-billion dollars in the rainy day fund. Of course, the governor pushed through spending cuts, including deep reductions in the Local Government Fund, which is funneled to counties, cities, townships and villages.
Kasich has warned that further cuts in state government spending can be expected, which is why Youngstown needs a budget safety net.
Of the $11.5 million windfall, $8.57 million is one-time money from V&M Star, while the rest is from the casino tax being collected by the state.
Mayor Sammarone and city lawmakers cannot ignore reality as they develop a three-year spending plan. The money must not be used to hire new workers or grant pay raises.