By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter
MOUNT VERNON — Councilman Sam Barone opened Tuesday's public hearing on a ½ percent income tax increase by saying, “Tonight we are creating an opportunity for members of the community to comment on the proposed tax increase.” Residents Kate Posey and Andrew Pike took him up on his offer.
Posey, her husband and Pike were the only community members who attended the public hearing. Others present included members of the City Finance Group. Those attending received a fact sheet showing the increase in expenses and fire and police runs since the last tax increase in 1983, a list of proposed projects for which the new money will be used and other information.
A Mount Vernon resident for 17 years, Posey said she is interested in learning where the money goes. “Why is money for softball fields so important to the community?” she asked. “I assumed we needed the money to make up for Siemens' layoffs.”
She also asked for details as to what constitutes operational costs, how much is spent, and the connector roads between Ohio routes 229 and 36 and Yellow Jacket Drive and Cougar Drive. “I think you need to be more specific with the community as far as what you need the money for,” she told council.
Regarding the proposed increase in the number of softball fields, Barone said, “We do have some expenses that are of lower magnitude, not only in the big picture but in cost.” When looking at the number of youths and adults who use the softball fields, Barone said that council's focus is how to create a benefit for a great number of people with a lower cost. Referring to the list of proposed projects, he said, “A few of them are necessary, a few enhance the quality of life for our residents.”
Auditor Terry Scott explained that operational costs included building maintenance, insurance and utilities on 12 structures as well as IT upgrades and energy conservation measures. Operational costs also include police cruisers, tactical equipment relating to the drug epidemic and mobile data terminals. On the fire side, costs include safety equipment, ambulances and fire trucks.
Barone noted that in 1983, safety services were primarily fire related. Now, he said, the department is essentially an EMS service that puts out a few fires. Fire/EMS runs increased from 1,676 in 1985 to 4,832 in 2017. “They fully tripled on an annual basis,” he said. “That's the story we need to pound home until every resident understands. The other half of the story they need to understand is the decreased revenue streams.”
He said that with no additional money coming in, council has simply moved money among various funds to take care of what is essential and necessary. As a result, infrastructure has been deferred. “Infrastructure is what keeps us up at night,” he said, in terms of “what we are leaving to our children and future residents.”
The current ½ percent income tax dedicated to safety services no longer covers the police and fire budgets; the general fund has to subsidize them to keep those departments running. “That means less money for other areas,” said Barone.
As a way to communicate with residents, Posey suggested creating a fact sheet showing the money used by various departments, operational costs and salaries. “Focus on the essentials,” she said. “I am for [the increase] because I understand we need the money. We feel the city and the council does a good job. We are all in the same boat; we want this to be a good community.”
Bruce White, a member of the finance group and chief executive officer of Knox Community Hospital, agreed that quality of life is important. As CEO of KCH, he is constantly looking at quality of life issues to attract physicians and nurses to the community. “While softball fields may seem kind of trite in the big field of view, they are very huge for quality of life,” he said.
Pike, who said he is neither for nor against the tax increase, said that rather than breaking down the list of proposed projects by category (roads/bridges, capital improvements and general fund), he would like to see it broken out by essential, quality of life and other. “That would be of interest to me,” he said, acknowledging that he is looking at it from an engineer's viewpoint and thus is more technical.
He also noted that in previous meetings, Scott attributed much of a $75 million drop in revenue between 2016 and 2017 to decreased profits of local businesses. “Is that $75 million permanent? Will the economy come back?” asked Pike. “If so, that $75 million should come back to the 2016 level sometime in the future, in which case the ½ percent can be directed toward covering the shortfall. The real root isn't the income tax, it's lack of profitability of business. You need to present to the voters that once the economy comes back up again, these other projects are what you want to do.”
Pike said that the number no one wants to state is the actual dollar amount the city needs to fully fund everything. “If the drug problem is so significant, is it not really the best thing to think of ½ percent?” he asked. “If you were to present the number, I think you would really crystallize all of these other numbers.”
The current plan divides the $3.4 million generated by a ½ percent income tax hike among three categories: general fund 40 percent, roads/bridges 40 percent and capital improvements 20 percent. Council members agree that the the majority of the 40 percent allotted to the general fund will be used for police and fire. Councilwoman Nancy Vail reiterated that she would like to see 10 percent each specifically designated police and fire.
After council members discussed the pros and cons of being that specific, Barone said a simplified way of presenting the tax increase to the community is to allocate 50 percent of it to police and fire. “Are we expecting to spend half of the money for fire and police? If so, let's just say it,” he said. He requested the city administrators to think about presenting the increase as 50 percent each to police and fire, and roads/bridges, general fund and operational costs.
Safety-service Director Joel Daniels said he had an “aha moment” while listening to the discussion, noting that the tax increase will generate $3.4 million and the general fund is subsidizing the police/fire budgets by $3.2 million.
To watch the public hearing, click here or visit mountvernonohio.org. Under departments, access City Council, then agenda and minutes.