By Ed Runyan
If the news media had been invited to two days’ worth of Trumbull County budget hearings, they might have heard Sheriff Thomas Altiere ask the commissioners last week to speed up the budget process – so that potential layoffs could occur sooner than later.
The Vindicator learned Tuesday that the hearings – that happened without media notification – were recorded. A reporter listened to the hearing involving the sheriff’s office and asked that the recordings be provided to the public on the commissioners’ website. Officials were attempting to load them Tuesday afternoon.
On the recording, Auditor Adrian Biviano could be heard telling Altiere that the commissioners “can’t fund” Altiere’s budget request, which was for $3.9 million more than Altiere was budgeted in 2016. He was budgeted $10.4 million in 2016 and is asking for $14.3 million in 2017.
After Altiere heard this, he asked that Biviano and the commissioners provide him with his budget in January instead of late February.
He wanted this to allow the incoming sheriff, Paul Monroe, to make layoffs earlier in the year if necessary, Altiere said.
“We have to pay unemployment costs for it, and that means more people need to be laid off the longer we wait,” Altiere said.
Biviano responded that the commissioners unveil their budget at the end of February because that’s how much time it takes to get it ready. “We are trying to hustle it up,” Biviano added.
That part of the conversation followed Altiere’s explanations for his budget request and Monroe’s question to Biviano and the commissioners: “Where does the auditor stand with this and where do the commissioners stand with this?”
“We can’t fund it,” Biviano responded.
“What happens next year happens next year,” Biviano said. “Without an increase in revenue, you have to cut costs. So next year, depending on the revenue stream, decisions will have to be made. You get your budget. You’ll have to decide whether to lay somebody off.”
Last Wednesday, Biviano showed The Vindicator a letter he gave the commissioners saying he recommended that they cut their 2017 general-fund budget by $1.5 million. The way to do it is to cut each department’s budget by 5 percent, he said.
The general fund is the one that pays for most county services, such as those provided by deputies, corrections officers and employees at the courthouse and county administration building.
Coincidentally, officials apparently felt less inhibited in their conversations during this year’s budget hearings after recognizing that no reporters were in attendance.
About halfway through the sheriff’s budget hearing, Altiere spoke briefly about going out to bid on a new food service contract at the jail this winter. County officials had rejected the first set of bids among two companies, Trinity Services Group of Florida and ABL Management of Louisiana, in August.
“And since there is no media here, uh, Trinity came in...” The recording was turned off at that point, so it’s impossible to know what Altiere said next.
When asked about it later Tuesday, Altiere said he just wanted the commissioners to know to be sure to “compare apples to apples” with regard to the two companies.
Paulette Godfrey, the commissioners clerk, who operates the digital recorder, said she sometimes shuts off the recorder if it appears the substance of the hearing is over, and officials are just “chit chatting.”
Commissioner Dan Polivka was not available last week to comment on the failure to notify the news media about the budget hearings. But when asked about it Tuesday, after the commissioners’ regular workshop meeting, he said it was “a serious mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. We [notify] you on everything else.”
That’s when he offered to allow reporters to hear the recordings.
The clerk who normally sends the notices said failure to notify the news media about the budget hearings this year was an oversight.
If she had been in the hearings herself, she would have realized the error right away and corrected it. Commissioner Frank Fuda said he wondered about the absence of reporters but didn’t do anything about it.
Upon request, Godfrey provided The Vindicator with the rules governing meeting notification to the news media. On Jan. 4, 2016, the commissioners approved a “reorganization resolution,” as they do every January.
It contains this: “Any person or any representative of the news media shall declare their desire in writing for notifications of meetings by Jan. 31, 2016, or notification will be discontinued.”
The Vindicator typically does not make a written request to any Trumbull County government body, but it filed one with the commissioners on Tuesday for the rest of 2016 and all of 2017.
Meanwhile, commissioners also responded to questions about a sales-tax increase to balance the budget. Polivka had opposed such an increase during his re-election campaign this year but said Tuesday he was “still analyzing it.”
“I’m not going to knee-jerk anything,” he said. “At the proper time, I’ll let you know.”
Commissioner Frank Fuda has recommended a sales-tax increase since 2015 and began again this week to advocate for it.
“I think there are steps that need to be taken before you go there,” Polivka said of a tax increase. One would be to combine services. Another would be to form a citizens committee to review the need, he said.