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City struggles with budget, layoffs

Andy Ouriel • Dec 30, 2013 at 11:30 AM

The burning question in Sandusky these days: Can the city afford to keep six full-time firefighter positions?

Nobody knows at this point.

The mystery stems from a $1 million federal grant funding six full-time firefighter positions expiring earlier this month.

From 2011 until earlier this month, the grant ensured 53 full-time slots for Sandusky firefighters.

Despite the grant expiring, all 53 employees still remain on the city’s payroll. Local taxpayer funds are fronting all firefighter salaries right now.

But that arrangement can’t continue for long, considering Sandusky’s shaky financial outlook.

The city’s deficit — where year-end spending surpasses income levels — totals $1.1 million heading into 2014. This includes a shortfall in firefighter salaries.

City commissioners recently unveiled a budget proposal eliminating the six unfunded firefighter jobs to offset Sandusky’s budget shortfall.

But all six positions likely would be retained if an outside funding source can be found.

Sandusky fire Chief Paul Ricci recently informed commissioners he might be able to obtain about $177,000 in federal funding to keep the six firefighters. But these funds would only cover the six salaries until May, however, without an infusion of other money.

It’s not even a guarantee Ricci will obtain the $177,000.

“It does not appear anyone sees the urgency of this,” commissioner Dick Brady said. “Every day that we continue to fund any type of expenses that we don’t have the money for is a disservice to this community”

Budget outlool

Municipal governments, such as Sandusky, must have a balanced budget, where income levels either match or exceed expenses.

A $1.1 million shortfall primarily occurred from this grant expiring coupled with extreme losses in both estate taxes and local government funds — major funding sources for Sandusky’s government.

City commissioners must approve a tentative $16.3 million budget by March.

Before then, however, they must cut at least $1.1 million worth of expenses to balance a budget.

Many officials agreed layoffs must occur in hopes of offsetting a deficit. Payroll accounts for up to 80 percent of the city’s total budget.

Sandusky city commissioners agreed on a working model to reduce a $1.1 million deficit:

• $500,000: Layoff six firefighters funded by a federal grant. This funding expired earlier this month.

• $200,000: Increase the amount of money annually transferred from a fire equipment and vehicle account into the budget. The amount would increase from $150,000 to $350,000.

• $200,000: Swap this amount from the city’s savings, or reserves, account, totaling $3.9 million today, into the budget. Officials must keep enough cash on hand in case of emergencies. A strong surplus also increases Sandusky’s bond rating, good for borrowing money at lower interest rates when pursuing construction projects.

• $70,000: Eliminate one full-time police position.

• $130,000: Various cuts throughout city departments, determined by city manager Nicole Ard.

Sandusky police Chief John Orzech and fire Chief Paul Ricci argued cases against laying off police officers and firefighters.

Commissioners reasoned with them, giving both officials about a month to examine the budget, talk with union personnel and suggest a way to make necessary cuts without layoff.

At stake: Sandusky fire cuts

Sandusky’s full-time fire staff could drop from 53 to 47 if they can’t find funds to keep six positions.

Among the possible fallouts from a smaller staff:

• Losing six people equates to two w fewer people working on each shift in the e three city-based e fire stations. This could mean reductions in service and response.

Sandusky fire receives about 5,300 emergency calls a year, with 75 percent devoted for ambulance runs and 25 percent for fire.

• Plunging departmental morale.

• Neglecting non-emergency activities, such as volunteer opportunities and community events.

• Closing Fire Station No. 7 on Venice Road near Toft Dairy and Fire Station No. 3 near Cedar Point.

• Giving priority to certain emergencies rather than responding to calls on a first-come, first served-bases.

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