How much longer can Youngstown officials wait to take action needed to fix financial problems to avoid the city being placed in state fiscal watch, caution or emergency as soon as next year?
The city’s general fund is budgeted to end this year with only a $12,000 surplus.
That’s a very, very thin line to walk. One minor problem and the city could easily end the year in the red.
The current situation with the fire department is a perfect example of the problems facing Youngstown.
Fire Chief Barry Finley made a decision last week to start closing stations on a rotating basis to cover the department’s overtime costs that have gotten out of control.
The department budgeted $108,000 for overtime costs for the entire year. As of last week, it had already spent $105,854 in overtime expenses, including about $22,000 in a recent 10-day period.
The reason for the large amount of overtime is the number of firefighters off duty with injuries causing an understaffing issue, Finley said.
As of last week, eight of the 127 members of the fire department weren’t working because of injuries.
As Finley has said the department is one major structure fire away from losing more staff to injury and it could happen at any time.
Finley was heavily leaning toward using most of an $85,000 fund to replace a rusted frame on a firetruck to cover the overtime costs.
But with OT expenses continuing to rise, he opted to close stations on a rotating basis.
By doing so, the department is using the three or so firefighters who work at a closed station as part of the regular shift to make up the overall staffing shortfall and thus save overtime.
It’s an unpopular decision with firefighters.
“Our goal is protect the citizens and keep Youngstown safe,” said Tony Ciccone, firefighters union president. “Closing a station [has] the potential to have devastating effects on the community and will put the lives of citizens and firefighters at risk.”
Ciccone wants the city to use the $85,000 fund to replace the rusted frame of a firetruck toward overtime.
“The city is choosing to gamble between the possibility of having to fix a truck later and protecting the lives of our citizens now,” he said. “For [us], that is an easy decision. We want to prioritize saving lives. Let’s deal with the emergency now, not set aside money for something that may not even happen.”
But Finley said two things: there are at least two firetrucks with rusted frames that need to be repaired and the $85,000 isn’t enough to cover projected overtime.
“Is the response time going to be a little longer? Yes,” he said. “But we’ll respond to fires at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and at 2 o’clock in the morning. The fire department being down one truck is not going to stop us from doing our job.”
If enough firefighters return to the department, the city can reopen closed stations, Finley said.
But that’s not a permanent fix, and Finley plans to permanently close a fire station, likely No. 7 at 142 Madison Ave., near the Youngstown State University campus, in fall 2020.
The fire chief has proposed a long-term plan to generate additional revenue, but none of the money would be collected this year.
A fire department is not designed to make money, but every little bit helps.
However, the reality is a projected $16 million deficit by 2023 for the city’s general fund.
City officials were told May 14 of the projected deficit by Michael Abouserhal, a CPA hired by the Mayor Jamael Tito Brown administration to examine the city’s finances.
Brown inherited a financial mess, but it’s his responsibility to clean it up.
Abouserhal made several recommendations to avoid a deficit including employee furloughs, elimination of raises, increasing employee health insurance premium contributions and layoffs.
Abouserhal’s words that day: “If decisions are not made, the city could end up in fiscal emergency. You need to focus on the deficit as quickly as possible.”
In the nearly two months since that warning, the city hasn’t done anything to address the situation.