November 24, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria police levy goes down

ELYRIA — Even the promise of more police officers on the streets was not enough to convince voters to push the city’s income tax rate to 2 percent.

State Rep. Matt Lundy, left, talks to Elyria police Lt. Andy Eichenlaub at the Issue 21 gathering at Smitty’s. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

State Rep. Matt Lundy, left, talks to Elyria police Lt. Andy Eichenlaub at the Issue 21 gathering at Smitty’s. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

City officials have practically begged for a boost for the past six years.

They have placed nine different issues before voters, and each time the answer has been the same: No. This latest attempt was thought to be the best bet as it was solely for the Police Department, and safety has been a hot-button topic in the community of late.

Yet, according to unofficial election results, voters were not swayed.

Voters rejected the levy 7,866 to 7,165, or 52 percent to 48 percent of the vote.

Police Chief Duane Whitely and a number of police officers, city workers and supporters gathered at Smitty’s on East Bridge Street to wait for the final numbers. They were confident going into Election Day they had successfully made the case for why residents should vote to increase the income tax rate by 0.25 percentage points in an effort to add approximately $2.8 million to the Police Department’s budget.

Early on, however, they saw where the vote was headed.

As results trickled in, votes in favor of the levy never came close to the amount needed for a win.

“This is hugely disappointing,” Whitely said, fatigue from a long campaign season showing on his face.

Pushing this levy to voters thrust the chief into the realm of playing politics — a tough task for someone in his first year as head of the Police Department.

“I’m not a politician. I just gave it to voters real and hoped they would see the need,” he said.

The loss also was a devastating blow to volunteers and campaign workers who for months have walked neighborhoods, telephoned voters and spoke about what the levy could do for the city at every available opportunity.

“I think we did everything to educate the public as much as possible as to the consequences of failure,” said Joe Zataar, a local businessman who volunteered to co-chair the Elyrians First Committee. “Right now, I’m really feeling for the future of this city.”

The levy was supposed to make it possible to increase the Police Department’s numbers to 100 officers, pay for additional training and fund the purchase of police cruisers and equipment. In less-tangible ways, the levy could have given residents a sense of security and turn the tide of negativity in the city, said Kevin Brubaker, Elyrians First Committee co-chairman.

“As a citizen, I feel this is a slap in the face of the Police Department,” he said.

“As a business owner and investor in this city, I can’t speak enough about safety and the need for police in our community,” Zataar added. “But I will seriously question future investments if the town doesn’t support safety and growth.”

Nonetheless, Mayor Bill Grace said the levy’s failure will not stop efforts to improve the Police Department.
With just 82 officers on the department, police cruisers that are more than five years old and no money in the current budget for training, the Police Department is as deficient as it can get. There is no choice but to make some changes, Grace said.

“We have to make some investments in that department,” he said. “Obviously, it will have to be modest at this point. We will have to find the funds from another place.”

For the time being, the city will get at least four new police officers thanks to a federal grant to pay the salaries and benefits of each for two years. However, Grace said he worries if the city will be able to keep them once the grant runs out.

He blamed the economy on Tuesday’s defeat.

“From everything I have heard from the people, they really wanted to pass it, but the economic situation and questions about the future meant they really couldn’t do it,” he said.

Council members who were not in favor of the levy’s design from the beginning said the failure means residents want and expect more from the city than a tax issue that throws money at just one department’s problems.

Councilwoman Mary Siwierka, D-at large, one of the levy’s opponents, has long said she would like to see immediate and thorough planning for next year’s budget — not just for the Police Department, but for the entire city.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.