Grant adds wrinkle to tax campaign in Warren
Three weeks ago in this space, we strongly advised Warren city leaders to work aggressively to make a comprehensive, detailed, transparent, compelling and air-tight case to city voters on the need for the 0.5-percent income-tax increase on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
Without sufficient and clear justification for its urgent need, we argued, history has shown that voters likely will oppose the move that would place Warren near the top of the heap among the highest-taxed municipalities in the state.
Now, however, that appeal to leaders has become doubly more critical. That’s because the city is poised to receive a federal grant of $2.4 million to hire and pay salaries and benefits to 12 to 15 full-time firefighters over the next two years. But here’s the rub: That firefighter funding had been precisely one of the centerpiece legs of the foundation for the tax hike.
ABOUT THE GRANT
U. S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, late last week announced the grant award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighters program. The veteran Valley congressman called it “great news for firefighters working to protect the Warren community.”
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin was equally buoyant, saying he is “extremely grateful for the opportunity to bring the fire department up to adequate staffing levels.”
Though it would be foolhardy for the city to reject the grant in these times of severe retrenchment in financial support from state and federal governments, the award will complicate the campaign and necessitate some re-jiggering in accounting for the $3.5 million to $4 million that the increase, if approved by voters, is projected to add to the city’s strained treasury.
Clearly, a case can be made that the grant money will finance the new crew of firefighters for only two years, and their ongoing employment would require additional locally produced revenue for the long term.
Equally clear, however, is the necessity for city leaders to make a persuasive case for redirecting funds initially targeted to the fire department staffing to other needs in 2017 and 2018 or to put it aside for firefighter use two years from now.
The possibilities could be manifest. Would the newfound cushion of funding be used best to further reduce a projected $1.7 million deficit in next year’s city budget? Would redirected revenue be best targeted toward beefing up and speeding up a planned program to repave and improve miles of subpar city roadways?
Another option could be one mentioned by Franklin, which would be to squirrel away the segment of funding originally dedicated to firefighter staffing and then use it for that purpose once the grant revenue runs dry.
Responsible voters will demand and deserve answers to those and other concerns that this new wrinkle in the campaign presents.
The new challenge in securing voter approval of the income-tax increase does not, however, supplant the broader need for an informative and convincing campaign on some of the larger structural concerns surrounding the ballot initiative.
LARGER QUESTIONS REMAIN
For example, what steps have been taken to downsize city government to match the continuing downsizing and depopulation of the city in recent years? Just how severely have state and federal cutbacks in aid damaged Warren’s bottom line? Have city employees, like their peers in much of the private sector, been forced to take on additional responsibilities without additional compensation? How aggressively has the city explored all available options at streamlining government through greater service sharing and consolidation with other nearby local governments to reap potentially large savings through economies of scale?
The ability of city leaders to answer those and other questions fully, frankly and forthrightly no doubt will influence voters’ attitudes toward the levy over the next 68 days. Leaders in Warren would be wise to get their facts, figures and detailed options in a row as a means to gain the outcome they seek among the city electorate come Nov. 8.