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Published: Thursday, 10/1/2009

Findlay lays off 34 city workers, seeks a tax hike

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY - Findlay city officials had hoped to get through the year without layoffs, but this week they sent pink slips to 34 employees, including 18 firefighters.

Mayor Pete Sehnert said in addition to the layoffs of maintenance workers and employees in the streets, engineering, and recreation departments, the city will close an east-side fire station and mothball the city pool at Riverside Park indefinitely. The layoffs, effective Nov. 8, came as a jolt to city employees, particularly firefighters who had agreed to concessions in May to avert layoffs.

"I don't know how people can be so shocked. Two floods and a recession - I don't know what more people expect the city can withstand without wanting some more money," the mayor said. "The floods were devastating, both of them, but we're still plugging away."

Because of a projected $4.9 million deficit in the city's general fund, Findlay is asking voters Nov. 3 to approve a three-year, 0.25 percent increase in the city's income tax rate. The 0.25 percent increase is projected to generate about $3.5 million a year for operations, although $600,000 a year would be set aside for flood mitigation.

Mr. Sehnert said if that passes, firefighters would be the first to be called back to work in February when revenue from the tax increase would begin to come in. The city also is applying for a federal grant that would provide funding to retain firefighters.

"If the income tax doesn't pass, I don't know when anyone can be called back," the mayor said. "Hopefully, nothing happens in between, like any more floods.

"It's kind of a mess, but every city is going through it," Mr. Sehnert said.

Matt Cooper, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 381, said the 18 layoffs coupled with the retirements of eight firefighters means "it's actually 35 percent of the firefighters that protect the city of Findlay that will be laid off." There are 48 firefighters remaining.

Mr. Cooper, who is among the firefighters to be laid off, said the union is promoting the income tax.

"We're letting the citizens know what kind of effect that's going to have on public safety," he said. "It is a major concern to firefighters that citizens' and firefighters' lives will be put at risk. This is going to be dangerous."

City officials announced plans in April to lay off up to 33 workers, including 11 firefighters and 13 police officers, but those were averted after the police and fire unions agreed to concessions.

In addition, all city employees were ordered to take eight unpaid days by the end of the year, raises were canceled, some city services cut, and $1 million that had been set aside for a new citywide radio system was used to help pay bills.

Mr. Sehnert said he's heard plenty of grumbling about the cancellation of leaf collection - a service the city has provided for years.

"I hope people don't put the fate of the city on leaf collection. It's a much bigger picture than that," Mr. Sehnert said. "I hope people don't go the polls mad. I hope they go with the thought of what a quarter percent means for the city."

He said Findlay's current 1 percent income tax is among the lowest in the state and the lowest for a city of Findlay's size.

"We haven't raised it in 40 years," Mr. Sehnert said. "I don't think there's a person who's gone 40 years without a pay raise. It finally caught up with us."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.



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