Study suggests about 50 ways to improve Youngstown government

By David Skolnick

By David Skolnick


The city has implemented only a handful of about 50 recommendations from a study on making city government more efficient, but they’re already paying off. Perhaps the most important suggestion from the PFM Group, the firm that developed the 251-page study for $250,000, did not originate with the report.

While working on the study last summer, a PFM official recommended the city seek competitive proposals from banks on the interest it pays for the $11.9 million it borrowed in 2005 to pay its portion of the $45 million Covelli Centre.

By doing so, the city saw the annual interest decline from $579,925 in 2011 to $113,250 in 2012.

The study also recommends the city sell or lease the center.

The city is looking actively for businesses interested in buying the center for $15 million or leasing it for $700,000 a year.

However, a study from PA Sports & Entertainment, hired by the city to assess the center’s operations, urged the city not to sell or lease the facility. And many city officials say they are pleased with how the center is operating.

The provisions put in the proposal will make it cost-prohibitive for companies wanting to buy or lease the facility, some say. Mayor Charles Sammarone said it’s in the city’s best interests to see whether a legitimate and beneficial offer for the center is made.

The PFM study, called “The Youngstown Plan,” lists numerous recommendations for every department.

“Something like this was definitely needed,” Sammarone said. “When I make a decision I want to base it on something. Having an outside expert do that helps.”

For example, the city was in the process of offering early retirement buyouts to employees when the study was being conducted.

The report said the city’s staffing level was higher than comparable cities, and unless a position is essential to the operation of city government, it shouldn’t be filled.

Of the 53 who took the buyout, only three were replaced.

The city is saving $2.4 million this year and about $4 million next year through the buyout.

Even with the reduction to about 700 workers, Youngstown still has a larger work force than four of the six comparable cities listed in the study. Canton and Gary, Ind., have more while Altoona, York and Bethlehem in Pennsylvania as well as Springfield, Ohio, have fewer workers.

The study also recommends reducing the cost of incarcerating prisoners arrested for less serious offenses.

In 2012, the city paid $323,480 to Mahoning County to house prisoners charged with city offenses at a cost of $80 a day at the county jail. It paid $225,360 to the county for 2011 a few months ago unaware of the cost until receiving the bill in October.

In the past few months, the city’s police and law departments have focused on charging fewer people with city offenses if there are comparable state offenses, said city Prosecutor Dana Lantz and city Law Director Anthony Farris.

The county doesn’t bill the city for those at the jail arrested by Youngstown police not on city charges.

The city paid $10,720 to the county for January compared to $32,800 in January 2012.

The bill for this year should be around $125,000, and about half of that in 2014, Lantz said.

PFM’s “recommendations help confirm what we’re doing,” Sammarone said.

In addition to not filling vacancies unless the positions are essential, the report suggested other ways to reduce employee costs.

But several of those would require new language in union contracts.

The study proposes the city stop paying a 10-percent contribution to the state pension system that is the responsibility of new employees.

The city pays an amount equal to 14 percent of its employees’ salaries into the state pension as required under law. But for many of its employees, the city also pays the 10 percent that is supposed to be paid by workers toward their pensions. Several local governments in the state follow the practice.

During contract negotiations, Youngstown will request new employees pay the 10 percent amount over a 3- to 5-year period.

The report also recommends increasing the employees’ share of health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 15 percent. That would save the city about $480,000 annually.

But city officials say they plan to negotiate the premium contribution increase to 15 percent for only new employees.

To keep spending in check, Sammarone said he’s asked each city department, regardless of its size, to cut $100,000 from its budget to keep expenses down. Several of the bigger departments, including fire and police, already have proposed larger cuts, he said.

“We may be hurting for money in the future, so we’re preparing for it now,” Sammarone said. “I want to make sure the city provides good basic services to citizens — safety services, clean streets and demolition” of dilapidated houses.

The PFM study was done because of the city’s involvement in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities [SC2] initiative.

SC2 is designed to provide struggling cities with needed resources, primarily personnel assistance, to spur economic growth and operational efficiency.

As part of SC2, Beckie Northrup, an expert on housing and community development with BCT Partners of New Brunswick, N.J., a firm hired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was in Youngstown last month to discuss ways to improve the city’s demolition efforts.

Northrup will return to Youngstown on March 21 and 22 to get local officials together to share her initial findings and recommendations, said DeMaine Kitchen, the mayor’s secretary/chief of staff.

Northrup is to have a final report shortly thereafter, Kitchen said.

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