December 21, 2014

Elyria
Mostly clear
26°F
test

Elyria may put income tax hike on ballot

ELYRIA — Mayor Holly Brinda’s pitch Monday night for a 0.25 percent income tax increase proposes a plan to boost the city’s safety forces with an infusion of more than $3.5 million.

Instead of zeroing in on one department, Brinda is calling for a shotgun approach to hit all the city’s safety needs at once, including more police officers and firefighters as well as funds to the auxiliary police force, road repairs and capital expenditures.

It’s time to ask residents what they want in terms of safety, but more importantly what they are willing to pay for in exchange for those services, the mayor said.

“What we’re presenting in this scenario is what we think we need in order to provide quality safety services to our residents,” she said. “There are no frills.”

Council named Law Director Scott Serazin to craft legislation needed to get the issue on the November ballot. Council will have to pass the ordinance at its Aug. 4 meeting to make the election deadline of Aug. 6.

But Brinda did not gain unanimous support.

Councilmen Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, and Larry Tanner, D-1st Ward, voted against the proposed tax plan. Craig said the administration has not given residents enough information to justify such a quick response by Council. He did not deny that the city could benefit from a higher tax rate, but he questioned whether residents had all of the facts in order to make the call now.

“How can we say we don’t know the projected revenues, expenses and anticipated net gains and losses in all of the upcoming budgets, but we can say to the residents that we need more money?” Craig said.

A .25 percent income tax increase would generate about $3.5 million each year.

The proposed budget for the additional revenue includes $1.980 million for police officers and firefighters — a count Brinda has set at 93 officers and 65 firefighters. In the second year, $80,000 would go to auxiliary police officers in the form of $3,000 stipends and a police academy scholarship program.

If passed, the tax would expire June 30, 2019.

Finance Director Ted Pileski said conservative estimates put the city in the red by at least $2 million next year because of a loss of revenue in state funding. Without new revenue, Elyria will not be able to move forward, he said.

“We are just going to limp along with the structure that we have now,” Pileski said.

However, Council nixed an idea to direct $500 to each of the city’s 15 neighborhood watch groups.

“We should just fund safety forces,” said Councilwoman Donna Mitchell, D-6th Ward. “The block watches are volunteer organizations that we should not fund. I can understand why we would offer money to the auxiliary officers, but not the block watches.”

Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, said putting the tax issue to voters in this way could backfire and he wondered what polling, if any, the mayor has done to determine the viability of her plan.

Brinda said she talked with community members as well Bill Burges, president of Burges and Burges, a political and campaign strategy firm. While those conversations were informal, Burges told Brinda that reducing the city’s tax credit for those working outside Elyria would not work. The mayor was leaning in that direction as more than 65 percent of Elyrians work outside the city and are given full credit for paying city taxes because of the withholdings taken by their employer city.

His advice, Brinda said, would be to increase the overall tax rate.

Elected officials know the fall campaign will be a hard sell. Elyrians have rejected several attempts by the city to bump up its tax rate in recent years.

“Nothing will be easy,” said Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large. “But we have to make the case.”

If passed, the tax would be on earned income. It would not affect those on fixed incomes through Social Security, said Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka.

With 52 firefighters getting paid with city dollars and 23 positions falling under a federal grant, the city’s challenge has long centered on how many firefighters the city could afford without the help of federal dollars.

Brinda has not committed to a plan on how she will keep some or all of the firefighters. However, Monday she told Council that by the end of 2014 the number of firefighters paid through the city will number 65, assuming the levy passes. That can be achieved through attrition and retirements and not layoffs, she said.

If everything comes to fruition, Brinda said the plan will eliminate the projected need for $300,000 in unemployment benefits and $150,000 in overtime associated with lower ranks. That will free up $450,000 that can be redirected toward other safety needs.

Moving the 13 additional positions to the general fund would cost $1.1 million.

Brinda said the plan keeps three fire stations open daily and three fire personnel on each truck. The number of 65 firefighters is supported by the state performance audit conducted in 2013 as well as the McGrath Fire Audit commissioned several years ago.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter @LisaRobersonCT.