Thursday, December 4, 2003

City looks at ways to reduce spending

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MIDDLETOWN - A shrinking job base, with 225 AK Steel layoffs on top of recent paper plant closings, has city leaders poised to close pools and cut staff in most departments. The fire chief said reduced staff could mean slower response time to some emergencies.

City Council has been grappling with how to cut $4.68 million from the $49 million 2004 budget, rather than dipping into $5.8 million in reserves.

All departments were asked to cut about 7 percent from their budgets for next year, said Preston Combs, assistant city manager.

"We've already had three paper companies close down, and with the AK cutbacks, we've lost about 1,000 jobs in the last three years," Combs said.

With city tax revenues flat at $17.9 million, and health care costs jumping 20 percent for 420 employees, deep cuts are necessary or cash reserves "will run out," said John Lyons, finance director. The city must use $1.9 million from the surplus to balance this year's budget, he said.

Fire Chief John Sauter said a proposed cut in his $7.8-million budget, and three unfilled positions from a citywide hiring freeze, would drop his daily staffing from 22 to 19.

"At that level, one of the city's five engine companies will be out of service for 279 days (or nine months)," Sauter said. Response time to some emergencies will be slower, he said.

Initial budget drafts submitted last month called for laying off two firefighters, two police officers and two civilian police clerks.

At the end of Tuesday's five-hour council meeting, Mayor David Schiavone recommended using $300,000 from the reserve to restore the two fire and four police positions. Council also wants to study fire department staffing efficiency.

"The community has spoken pretty clearly that it doesn't want public safety cuts," Schiavone said.

The city also continues to explore new revenue sources. Council Tuesday authorized billing insurance companies for fire runs, as it does for life squad runs. Cincinnati and Hamilton already get such reimbursements, Lyons said.

"We expect this to add about $200,000 to $300,000 to the city general fund," Lyons said.

But an ordinance to reduce the 1.5 percent tax credit for Middletown residents working in other cities - which would generate $1.1 million - was withdrawn by Schiavone after citizens protested.


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