Thursday, July 15, 2004

Once flush, now broke, city weighs tax increase



By Liz Oakes
Enquirer staff writer

[photo]
Helen Wessendarp uses St. Bernard's Dial-A-Ride service to go to Mass at St. Clement's Catholic Church. "I wouldn't get anyplace if they didn't have it," she said of the bus service.
The Enquirer/SARAH CONARD
ST. BERNARD - Not long ago, this small Hamilton County city that's home to P&G's historic Ivorydale plant had literally millions of dollars to spare, and senior citizens could get a bus ride to anyplace in town for a dime.

Fast-forward five years. Businesses have moved out and population has declined. In Norwood, a 14-mill emergency levy is on the Aug. 3 ballot, and Mount Healthy has a 5-mill fire levy that would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an extra $105 annually. Wyoming is still pondering whether to increase its income tax or sell off some city property, among other steps.

Now, it's St. Bernard's turn to weigh higher taxes.

This city of 5,146 residents is considering reinstating a 2-mill property tax on top of its current 8 mills, and could be forced to slash police, fire and service department budgets later this summer.

At 7:30 p.m. today, council plans a special budget session at City Hall as a "town meeting" on the proposed tax increase.

Officials will hold another council meeting on the topic at 7:30 p.m. July 29. A public hearing will be at 8 p.m. Aug. 5 on whether to raise the property tax.

A 2-mill increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an extra $50 a year in taxes, and bring in about $335,000 a year, according to the city.

In 1990, City Council reduced the property tax by 2 mills because the city was doing well financially, officials say.

City officials say St. Bernard faces a $2.5 million shortfall in its proposed 2005 budget. It's already spent $1 million more than its income so far this year, according to the city auditor's report.

"The numbers for next year's budget have been forecast, and the numbers are just as dismal as last year's," Councilwoman Peggy Brickweg wrote recently to residents in the 1.53-square-mile city.

"The increase of 2 mills would help, but it is also apparent many more cuts will need to be made," her letter continued.

Even though any increase in property taxes would not be collected until next year at the earliest, Mayor John Estep emphasized urgency at Council's meeting earlier this month.

"Given our financial situation, I can't over-impress the need to immediately begin collecting these 2 mills," he said.

Not everyone agrees, and some council members want to see more budget cuts.

The city has taken some steps, such as raising the rate for senior citizens on the Dial-A-Ride bus to a quarter (those under age 65 now pay 50 cents, up from a quarter), and stretching the waiting time for mayor's court to three weeks.

"It's more than just putting a Band-Aid on things; we need to come up with a bigger fix," said Auditor Walt St. Clair.

St. Bernard's fire chief recently suspended overtime for firefighters. .

The cutback means "no guarantee of having enough personnel available to respond to emergency incidents," Chief Steven Scherpenberg warned in a July 1 letter to city officials.

In the service department there are fears of layoffs and the end of amenities such as free garbage bags and twice-a-week trash collection.

E-mail loakes@enquirer.com




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