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Study suggests about 50 ways to improve Youngstown government



Published: Sun, March 3, 2013 @ 12:08 a.m.

By David Skolnick

By David Skolnick

skolnick@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

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.


Comments

1buckeyes3696(4 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Touché.... Great article

Suggest removal:

2Knightcap(605 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Add these two recomendations -

1. Only four wards and four council people.
2. Cut the clerk of courts 30%.

Suggest removal:

3lee(544 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Stop voting for taxes, starve the beast .

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4prodgodq(135 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

These types of studies have their value, but they're not the "gospel" either. It seems to me that at this point the mayor has been able to get some cost savings out of it without too much pain. So far so good. Contrary to what most people think, nearly every city in America is going through this, even in areas where the economy hasn't been hit nearly as hard as ours.

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5johnyoung(231 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

I must say that I agree with virtually all of PFM's recommendations.

Many of the policies and practices Youngstown has adopted over the years, especially ones related to debt financing and encroaching upon the traditional private sector role of operating buildings as a landlord have come as a result of strong influence from the long-lime finance director. These have cost the city dearly in overall resources and have compromised the city's ability to focus on providing basic services to its citizens.

In regard to staffing, while statistically the city may be overloaded with personnel as compared to other peer cities, those personnel are not in the proper places to have the best effect. Therefore, instead of adopting a blanket policy of not replacing retirees, the study should recommend a more strategic approach whereby the needs and effectiveness of each department is assessed, and then staffing decisions are made accordingly. It does no good to reduce staff and save money if in the process certain essential functions become totally ineffective.

Overall, not a bad starting point.

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676Ytown(1148 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Obama may want to take notice of how our cities are easily able to cut back on waste and overspending with a few simple changes like paying attention to the interest rates we are paying.

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

I don't know about you, but I find that VERY impressive. But, at the same time I find it disturbing that they didn't have enough common sense at the local level to realize that they were wasting taxpayer money without having to bring in a consultant to bring it to their attention.

Wow, apply those concepts to the federal level and miraculously we will find that 2% in cuts mandated by the sequester.

Suggest removal:

7Silence_Dogood(1214 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

" I find it disturbing that they didn't have enough common sense at the local level to realize that they were wasting taxpayer money"
I agree, but what is more disturbing is the fact that the previous Mayor who was a Banker by profession never made any attempt to do this. That makes me question Jay William's competence.

Suggest removal:

8gdog4766(1250 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

There are several common sense cuts that can be made. No take home cars, no cellphones (they are used for personal use anyway), shrink admin staff, greatly reduce city council in pay and size they earn far too much for part time. No paid for junckets (they don't attend the meetings). These are simple cuts done with ease.

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9UticaShale(847 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

"Defund Youngstown!"

A movement to throw the bums and their excrement out.

Suggest removal:

10Ianacek(855 comments)posted 1 year, 1 month ago

Youngstown City needs a new structure to replace the existing one . The new structure will deliver more services & do so in a more cost effective manner All existing staff should be laid off & invited to apply for roles in the new structure , using objective criteria .
There will be some staff who can't fit into the new structure or don't want to & there will be jobs that must be advertized because there are no suitable internal candidates or because the jobs are so important they should be market tested .That's good .

That's how its done anywhere else .

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