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Cherry-picking and misleading?



Published: Sun, April 13, 2014 @ 12:02 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)


Cherry-picking.

Misleading.

Those were among the top accusations from Mahoning County bosses when they took to the podium Thursday to make our reporting in The Vindicator their most vital county business last week. Not potholes. Not poverty. Not contracts.

So important were we made that news rival (but still pal) Stan Boney tracked me down for his 11 p.m. Thursday news report.

(Industry secret: Competing media are most always friendly on the sidelines of life. But in the field of news play, each works hard to keep distance from other media. It’s an ancient code similar to campaigning politicians who will not refer to their opponent by name.)

So for Stan to give me a call, the county’s grandstanding against The Vindy was significant.

We would wish that the facts would speak for themselves.

But when the heat gets turned up on officials, often it’s the media they choose to attack instead of their operations.

Best recent example?

The New Jersey bridge scandal.

It was shuffled and dismissed by New Jersey officials. But a newspaper reporter stuck with it and, well, Gov. Chris Christie is as presidential now as the Cleveland Browns are a powerhouse.

Best local example?

There was nothing wrong with Judge Belinky’s operations, he told us, despite the persistent rumors.

So we printed a significant story last Sunday on county pay raises — written by Pete Milliken and managed and illustrated by editors Mark Sweetwood, Ernie Brown and Robert McFerren.

It was prompted by the county’s asking for $7 million more in taxes from us. We set out on a long and labored effort to tell a part of the county spending that they will not tell us. They since have dropped that request and are asking only to make an existing sales tax a permanent tax.

We told the story because they don’t. When they do try, it’s not in a way taxpayers want to hear it, but is instead told in a way that makes them look their best.

What’s clear from citizens this week on our Facebook pages, in our Tweets and on the Vindy.com message board — county spending actions are not spectacular right now.

Here’s some of the countyspeak this week, followed by a bit of context from me:

David Ditzler, chairman of the county commissioners: We’ve reduced 289 jobs from 1,957 in 2009 to 1,668 county employees in 2013, for a reduction of nearly $7.5 million in annual salary expenses during that time.

My thought: Yes, we reported that over the years. Those were reductions out of necessity because funding forced it. Be careful to make it sound differently. But in 2012 and 2013, you added more than 20 jobs each year. That’s nearly 50 jobs totaling $2.5 million in expenses (if you conservatively assign each job a $50,000 annual cost in salary and benefits.) Why add those jobs when they were vacant? Why add, knowing you will ask voters for a new sales tax? Please list the new jobs and the salaries. That would have made a great chart.

Ditzler: “We chose to do the PERS flip to make government more transparent.”

My thought: The flip was also due to the fallout from SB 5 and citizen fatigue with out-of-skew health care and benefits.

That said, those citizens would have had different opinions if they knew that addressing their concerns meant the same money would be spent, it would just get transferred to the employee. Even further, taxpayers would have had further concern had they been told such a flip would cost taxpayers even more money in increased benefits costs, payroll taxes and more.

Good political leadership would have been to have a press conference with charts and breakdowns explaining how the county got into this pension payment situation (it was actually honorable in the 1990s) and that a fix to appease citizens would cost more money.

Instead they had charts to show we were idiots.

Ron Marian, mental-health board director, called me. We reported his pay hikes over the past four years, including a December hike even though he announced he was retiring. His staff shared the same raise trend even though the agencies they lead did not. Said Ron: We hit our goals. Staff should be rewarded.

My thought: I told him the guys at Best Buy and Pep Boys likely hit their goals, and likely did not enjoy 4 percent bumps because of the horrid economy. He wanted me to know he took a pay freeze once. It was about 25 years ago.

Sheriff Greene was my first contact last week (when I was sleeping): He projected that we sank the county sales tax, and that it will ultimately affect his team, which always takes it in the teeth when funding suffers.

My thought: I’m all for keeping the sales tax — just don’t support it being continuous based on the theatrics above. Make it temporary until better leadership arises to explain their new hires, show courage when a movement such as the pension flip is going wrong, or show restraint with raises on the eve of retirements.

Here’s another idea: Create a tax specifically for public safety. The sheriff’s department is the only division to cut back the way they did. That’s a bankable legacy. And Greene is one of my favorite officials. That’s bankable, too.

Combined tasks are worth more money: Not addressed.

We need to pay as much as other counties: Not addressed.

So you have a month to think about it, and county officials have a month to explain.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.


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