Mike DeWiine pledges to be a good listener as governor. He recently met with Bill Judge at the Barberton mayor’s request. In part, Judge talked about the consequences of the state reducing funding for local governments during the John Kasich years. Now those consequences are playing out in a big way in Barberton. They deserve the attention of the governor and Ohio lawmakers as they prepare a new two-year state budget.
Barberton faces a $2.4 million deficit. The shortfall doesn’t come as a surprise. Mayor Judge warned about the looming problem a year ago as the city put together its budget. He sought, and failed, to get concessions on raises from bargaining units. Actually, the city closed last year $800,000 in the red, closing the gap by dipping into reserves.
Add to its financial problems the announcement that Babcock & Wilcox will relocate to Akron this year. That translates to $1.3 million in lost city income tax revenue. So the mayor renewed his request to look at concessions from police officers, firefighters and other employees. This time the needed sum was larger, the mayor presenting a menu of options to generate a portion of the needed savings, yet the answer was the same. Which led to the mayor issuing layoff notices last week involving five full-time employees and 21 part-time workers.
As the City Council meeting on Monday evening reinforced, practically no one wants to see layoffs. A large contingent of city residents attended the meeting to make the point. It also is true that the mayor and others have been achieving savings through squeezing budgets and achieving efficiencies. That work continues. It explains examining the option of closing the city jail.
More, Barberton recently has increased its income tax by 0.25 percentage points, dedicating the revenue to street repair. The city’s tax effort for its public schools is 1.21, or one of the strongest in Summit County and significantly above the state average pegged at 1. The Barberton Community Foundation is structured correctly to stay away from supporting operations or somehow coming to the rescue instead of city officials achieving financial stability for the longer term.
So there isn’t much fiscal room to maneuver if the goal is to avoid layoffs. Unfortunately, the moment points to employees making concessions along the lines the mayor has proposed, such as paring back pay increases or narrowing benefits, including tuition allowances. Perhaps employees have better ideas. The best approach is to hash out together the way forward with a looming budget deadline of March 15.
Already the mayor and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have found the path to saving one full-time job.
At the same time, Barberton needs a genuine partner in the state. The city isn’t alone. Other municipalities, larger and small, must deal with same fiscal conditions. They have been battered, and not just through the slashing of the Local Government Fund. Such revenue streams as the estate tax and the tangible personal property tax have been eliminated without sufficient alternative, or substitute, funding.
The thinking isn’t that the partnership will return exactly to what it was. Local officials have heard the governor say he doesn’t have “a magic wand.” No one expects a retreat on the income tax cuts of the past dozen years, though that would be a responsible course. What the governor can do is craft a budget proposal that reflects what he told the Akron Roundtable last month, that local and state governments have complementary tasks in serving Ohioans, that the state depends on locals to deliver. That makes investing adequately in Barberton and other cities part of fiscal responsibility.