Will Y’town ignore plan to cut spending – again?

Eight months ago, an expert in public finances provided Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and city council with a slew of recommendations for dealing with government’s imploding budget.

Michael Abouserhal, retired vice president of finance and business services at Cuyahoga Community College and one-time assistant director of finance and controller for the city of Cleveland, warned that unless drastic action was taken to cut costs, Youngstown would face a $16 million operating budget deficit in five years.

So, did Mayor Brown force government to bite the bullet by enacting employee furloughs, eliminating raises, increasing health insurance premium contributions and laying off workers – in keeping with some of Abouserhal’s recommendations?

No, he didn’t.

Instead, the former member of city council and ex-chief deputy in the Mahoning County Treasurer’s Office, chose to repeat a statement he made during his run for mayor in 2017 that we continue to find troubling:

“I don’t want to send anybody home.”

Given that more than 70 percent of Youngstown’s general fund, which finances most operations of government, is absorbed by employee wages and benefits, not sending anybody home is a clear indication of the mayor’s unwillingness to face reality.

But before residents conclude that he’s shirking his responsibilities as the city’s chief executive, consider this: Although he failed to implement all the recommendations contained in the May 2018 budget analysis, he has reached out to Abouserhal – again.

Last week, the city’s board of control consisting of the mayor and finance and law directors approved a contract to rehire Abouserhal as a consultant.

His assignment: Guide City Hall through the gathering financial storm.

According to a story by Vindicator Reporter David Skolnick, the consultant will assess the city’s financial condition, evaluate the proposed 2019 budget, evaluate the long-term budgetary forecast and help with the selection of a finance director.

State auditor’s finding

Abouserhal will also help the city figure out what to do if the Ohio Auditor’s Office stands firm on its finding that city government must use general fund money to repay the $5.5 million it inappropriately spent from Youngstown’s water, wastewater and sanitation funds for economic-development projects.

While we applaud the administration and city council for recognizing that an independent assessment of Youngtown’s finances is needed, we must ask the obvious question:

What’s the point in paying somebody to provide a blueprint for balancing the operating budget when you have no intention of implementing all the recommended changes?

Indeed, what will rehiring Abouserhal accomplish if the mayor and city council lack the political will to make the difficult decisions regarding spending?

Last year, Abouserhal, who was paid $25,000, recommended significant personnel cuts in the fire department and clerk of courts office. The cuts haven’t been made.

Here are some other recommendations: asking employees to forgo salary increases for this year and 2020; implementing mandatory furlough days; increasing employees’ contribution to health insurance premiums from 10 percent to 20 percent; reducing overtime; eliminating pension pickup for newly hired employees and reducing it for existing workers; selling or closing Henry Stambaugh Golf Course; reducing external consulting services provided to the city’s engineering department.

To be sure, slashing government’s payroll is never easy, but that’s why Brown and members of city council ran for office: To provide the city of Youngstown with courageous leadership that taxpayers expect.

As we have often noted in this space, Youngstown is facing major challenges that directly impact government’s finances: The population is declining and getting older; the tax base is stagnant, at best; neighborhoods are deteriorating; the number of dilapidated homes that need to be demolished remains high; and the loss of some major employers does not bode well for the community’s economic future.

Had Brown and city council implemented the recommendations contained in last May’s report, Abouserhal’s job would be a lot easier today.

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