The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
FINDLAY -- Three years ago, in the midst of an economic slump city officials hoped was temporary, Findlay voters agreed to raise the local income tax by 0.25 percent for three years.
Those three years will be up at the end of the year, but on Nov. 6, the city is asking voters to make the 0.25 percent income tax permanent. They say the city needs the money to make up for other lost revenues, but opponents say the city has not done enough to tighten its belt. They are quick to point out that first-term Mayor Lydia Mihalik was elected after promising not to ask voters to renew the tax.
“Things have changed since that time,” Ms. Mihalik said. “Trust me, I wish we didn’t even have to have this conversation.”
She insists “this is not about playing politics with the city,” but says it's a matter of declining revenue that was not foreseen three years ago.
“This is about our operations. This is about the safety of our community and the quality of life we can enjoy as we move into the future,” Ms. Mihalik said. “It’s about sustaining the same levels of services we enjoy today.”
Even at 1.25 percent, Findlay has one of the lowest municipal income tax rates for a city its size in Ohio. Bowling Green is at 2 percent. Tiffin is asking voters on Nov. 6 to increase its current 1.75 percent income tax rate to 2 percent.
Ms. Mihalik said she could not have foreseen the drastic cut the state legislature made last year in local government funds. That reduction coupled with the loss of estate taxes adds up to about $2 million a year in lost revenue for Findlay.
In addition, she said, decisions were made before she took office that she had “no control over,” including a series of four 2 percent raises for the city’s nonunion employees -- the last of which was rescinded by City Council.
Because the 0.25 percent now brings in about $4.2 million a year, the mayor has outlined some $6 million in cuts to be implemented if the tax fails. Among them, the city would lay off 23 of the city's 69 firefighters, close one of its four fire stations, lay off six police officers, and reduce staffing in the parks, streets, cemetery, and zoning departments.
Critics of the income tax -- a group calling itself Citizens for Findlay -- said in an email to The Blade that they are a pro-accountability group disturbed by City Council’s failure to make and maintain spending cuts, by the city's focus on its needs rather than the community’s needs such as paving streets, and by the fact that the new mayor misled voters by promising not to seek renewal of the 0.25 percent income tax.
“City Hall doesn’t seem to care that families, businesses, villages, townships, and schools have all made the tough choices while City Council has failed to provide a single effort to prepare for this tax ending in 2012,” the group said.
The mayor begs to differ.
Ms. Mihalik said since she took office Jan. 1, the city has reduced its employee rolls from 328 full-time workers to 321. She combined the safety director and service director's position into one and replaced an administrative assistant in her office with a communications director "with a broader range of skills" who works in various city departments. Her administration also implemented changes in employees' health care plans that she believes will save more than $400,000 next year.
Fire Chief Tom Lonyo, whose department would take a big hit if the tax fails, said the east side of Findlay would be particularly vulnerable to delays in response time because the city's newest fire station on the east side would most likely be the one to close. He said the public will have to decide how much risk it's willing to absorb.
“The risks that the community experiences on an annual basis -- fire, disaster, storms, you name it -- will not decrease, but the capability to respond to those risks certainly will,” he said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.