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Youngstown’s budget crisis puts city council members in a bind

By David Skolnick

Friday, June 22, 2018

Youngstown is facing a general-fund crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.

And city government officials are confused about a supposed illegal meeting that some say occurred and others strongly deny.

The general fund is budgeted this year to end with only a $12,000 surplus.

A forecast given last month by a CPA hired by the city warns that if Youngstown doesn’t make major structural changes to its finances, it will have a general-fund deficit of about $16 million by 2023.

The first real sign of financial peril appeared Tuesday when fire Chief Barry Finley told city council that his department had already spent about $81,700 of its budgeted $108,000 for overtime this year. He said the department would reach the budgeted amount by mid-July.

The issue is nine of the department’s 127 firefighters are off duty with injuries that occurred while on the job, Finley said. That has led to an increased need for overtime to make up for the understaffing problem.

Finley said the fire department needs about $60,000 to $65,000 to pay for overtime for the rest of the year.

Obviously, the money isn’t just sitting there in the surplus.

The fire chief, with the backing of the administration, suggested the city use most of an $85,000 fund to replace the rusted frame of a fire truck to pay for the additional overtime.

The work can’t be done until September or October at the earliest, Finley said, so using it now for overtime would remedy the situation. The problem is another $85,000 is needed to replace the rusted frame of another fire truck.

Both vehicles are about 10 years old and the city purchased them from a Florida company that didn’t take into account the rougher winters in Northeast Ohio when preparing the trucks, Finley said.

No one mentions the city’s neglect in not making sure a decade ago that the very expensive trucks were ready for Youngstown winters.

When given the option of transferring the money from the repair line item to overtime, city council balked saying a longer-term solution is needed.

During the discussion, Finley also threw out the suggestion of shutting down a fire station even though he said he doesn’t “feel comfortable” doing so “because we are seeing calls increase.”

But that’s what council decided – leaving the details to Finley.

Rather than shutting down one of the city’s eight fire stations, Finley chose, beginning Thursday, to chose Fire Station No. 15 on Schenley Avenue and McCollum Road on the West Side through the end of the month. Then, the department will shut down other stations every two weeks on a rotating basis.

By doing so, the three or so firefighters who man the station that is closed will be able to fill in at other locations where there are shortfalls in staff. This, at least in theory, will reduce the amount of overtime needed to run the department.

However, that never happened.

Instead, the fire chief had a conversation with Councilwoman Lauren McNally, D-5th, chairwoman of the finance committee, in which the decision was made to not close the stations. What occurred depends on who you talk to, but it’s left city government confused and embarrassed.

Let’s get back to the bleak financial forecast given last month by Michael Abouserhal, a CPA and former Ohio Lottery Commission executive director hired by the city as a financial consultant.

Among his many suggestions for getting the city out of its projected financial deficit was cutting staff. He specifically mentioned that one suggestion was eliminating as many as 20 firefighters.

While the financial savings would be somewhere close to $1 million a year, the city also has to consider the consequences of reducing its fire department by that many employees.

There’s no doubt that response time to fires would increase and anyone who’s unfortunately needed the help of the fire department knows every second counts.

All it would take to regret that decision would be a fatal fire or the inability to get to a fire or two that spread from one home to several others.

It’s a difficult balancing act, but city council and the administration need to make the hard decisions as to how to balance Youngstown’s budget or end up in fiscal emergency and have the state make those decisions for them.