WILMINGTON — When it comes to the city’s next budget, council members agree on one thing – more discussion is needed.
As to whether they need to ask voters to approve a tax increase, cut costs or deliver services in new ways, several opinions emerged.
The budget presented by Mayor Randy Riley and city administration calls for spending $9.1 million while documents presented by City Auditor David Hollingsworth estimates less than $7.8 million in revenues. That leaves more than $1.3 million of a deficit.
Other city documents project an estimated $1.6 million in carryover. That could, potentially, leave the city with $400,000 by the end of 2016, making it impossible for the city to pass a budget similar to the one proposed. By law, Ohio cities have to pass a budget that can be paid for with revenue and carryover.
Council passed a first reading on that budget in a 4-2 vote. Council members Randi Milburn, Marian Miller, Rob Jaehnig and Mark McKay voted for it, and members Loren Stuckert and Joe Spicer voted against it.
“I, of course, am not going to vote in the positive on a million-dollar deficit,” said Stuckert, who represents the Second Ward.
Stuckert said he’d like to talk to mayor-elect John Stanforth about what changes he might make. Milburn said that if he did, she’d like to be privy to that conversation, too.
Spicer told the News Journal that he voted against the reading because he too wanted to talk to Stanforth and see what the city’s next mayor wants to do in the future. He also said he’s worried about the projected deficit in the budget.
Jaehnig said he thought it was interesting that council would consider cuts with “somebody who hasn’t even sat in the seat yet” and doesn’t yet know what might need to be done.
Spicer, who represents the Third Ward, said he couldn’t believe Stanforth would come into the job without ideas of what changes he might make, if any.
“I’m surprised that we had a conversation two weeks ago and this wasn’t asked for two weeks ago,” Miller said.
“I will listen to anybody in finance that shows me where to cut,” Miller said later. “If you want to cut something, then say it. … We sit up here and talk about we have to explore it. Then show me. … Nobody has said it.”
City Auditor David Hollingsworth added that he was surprised that none of council asked his office for clarification on any financial information concerning the 2016 budget. He also said the city would have to eliminate more than 20 positions to balance the budget.
“Even if you change three or four positions around, you’re not going to change ($1.2 million),” he said. “We always get down to the last hour and somebody wants to make a change, but nobody has any questions until then.”
Mayor Randy Riley said Stanforth needs a budget to work with next year and later added that Stanforth hasn’t expressed a concern with the budget.
“Bottom line, Mayor-elect Stanforth has got to have a budget to get started,” Riley said. “It’s a fluid document. There’s going to be new appropriations” changes in expenses and other changes.
Milburn agreed, saying council hasn’t yet stuck to a budget as initially passed.
McKay said he favored an earnings tax but it needs to go to the citizens. To not let citizens have input, he said, would be arrogant and short-sighted.
“We need to make a very clear case of pros and cons,” he said, by pointing out what services may be cut or lost. “We should give the voters a chance to make the decision.”
McKay also said he’d like the tax to have an expiration date, but Milburn said, “I’ve never seen a tax be temporary.”
Wilmington resident Paul Hunter said Clinton County has reduced its millage by two. Milburn added that the city’s current income tax was supposed to be temporary.
In response to a question from Milburn, Tax Commissioner Marque Jones said council could choose to give credit to those Wilmington residents who worked in cities with their own income taxes. That credit is currently in place in Wilmington and defrays up to a full percentage point of income.
For instance, city residents that work in a city with a 0.5 percent income tax pay that and only 0.5 percent to Wilmington. Milburn said such a credit would soften the blow for those residents.
Riley said he asked Stanforth if he had any interest in having a tax proposal before voters in the March primary, the deadline for which is in December. Riley said Stanforth said he’d rather look at it himself, meaning it would have to wait until the November general election.
Stanforth told the News Journal leading up to the election, “I am not for increasing our taxes.”
“We are to the point that if we’re going to cut more … you’re looking at cutting people,” Riley said. “You’re looking at cutting services.”
“But if you don’t talk about it, it’s going to creep up on you” and you’re going to miss your opportunity, Riley said.
Stuckert said everyone ran a campaign against city government spending more money than it spends, but council members Mark McKay and Jaehnig disputed that claim about their campaign literature.
“If you go to the taxpayers, and they don’t agree to a tax increase, there has to be a plan B,” Stuckert said. “Fluid budgets aren’t going to wash when we’re out of money and the carryover’s gone. … I would like to hear some conversations about what you do when you get to plan B.”
Stuckert said he doesn’t believe the choice is between doing things the way they do versus cutting services. Instead, he said he believes council can think of different ways to deliver those services.
Jaehnig said the state has provided less local government funds with the philosophy of saying local government should fund local services.
“The problem is, that at a local level, most local communities have not made an adjustment,” Jaehnig said. “The game has changed. … The rules have changed completely now, and you have to be realistic about that.
“The longer you continue to wait before making … the decision to let people have their say, the more of a hole we tend to get ourselves in,” Jaehnig added. “At some point, it’s got to happen.”
Hollingsworth said council members, including some who voted against last year’s budget, which called for a deficit too, then voted to spend an additional $500,000 on streets.
Stuckert responded, saying council was told, “We had to do this because we had the money.”
He said that without that $500,000 payroll increase, the city wouldn’t be in the position that it’s in now.
“Pass the bleeding budget,” said Wilmington resident Michael Mandelstein. “Let the mayor-elect have something to work with. … Just pass the bleeding thing and stop dithering around with last-second this, that and the other. And if somebody thinks there’s something in the budget that needs to be cut, I guess you can start working on that January 1.”
Another Wilmington resident, Paul Hunter, suggested council ask voters to pass a property tax levy strictly for streets. “I want to pay that tax,” he said.
Hunter added that he believes council has done its part to cut costs. Now, he said, residents have an obligation to pay for services they want.
“It’s time to ask the citizens step up and to make a decision,” Hunter said.
Later, Mandelstein suggested a combination of an earnings tax and a property tax levy. He said that would be fair to those who work in Wilmington but don’t live there while also not putting too much burden on those who live in Wilmington on fixed incomes.
He also urged those that ran on a “no new taxes” platform to reconsider.
Vince Holmes, also a Wilmington resident, said the city had good employees and asked if council could consider attrition instead of “punishing” employees.
“Nobody likes paying more taxes,” Holmes said. “But if there’s any way at all we can keep from abusing them, we need our senior staff because of their knowledge base and then there’s fellows … they’ve got a baby at home.”
Another discussion is expected at council’s next session, Thursday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.