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Murray: Fire, police cuts on the table

Andy Ouriel • Feb 14, 2014 at 5:13 PM

For Sandusky ex officio mayor Dennis Murray Jr., transparency’s the best medicine to cure a feeble relationship between city government and the community.

So he doled out large doses of public clarity to about 30 community members attending a town hall-style meeting Thursday night at the Sandusky Library.

Murray, who just started his second stint as a city commissioner, organized the first of three question-and-answer sessions in hopes of better informing people about pressing city issues.

He hosted these types of meetings as the area’s state representative, serving from 2009 through 2012.    

Much of the 90-minute presentation focused on Sandusky’s fiscal crisis.

The financial fiasco is highlighted by a $1.1 million shortfall in the city’s projected $16.3 million everyday operating 2014 budget. The budget funds many services, including police and fire.

By late March, officials must balance the budget, which calls for laying off at least four firefighters in addition to other reductions.

Murray tried explaining Sandusky’s current state of affairs while raising questions for all to consider in possibly solving these quandaries.

Among the unanswered issues:

Layoffs coming?

Anywhere from 75 percent to 80 percent of Sandusky’s everyday operating budget covers salaries.

To offset the budget — and to avoid other financial shortfalls in upcoming years — commissioners must realistically consider downsizing staffing levels without compromising public safety or quality of life.

Layoffs are a common practice in Sandusky. Case in point: Sandusky’s full-time staffing levels have decreased about 25 percent over the past decade, from about 280 workers in 2004 to 214 as of December 2013.

Despite staffing levels decreasing, salaries continue to skyrocket.

Union-represented employees obtained a 1.5 percent wage increase in their latest contract. Pay for police officers, firefighters and others jumps 1.5 percent in each year from 2013 through 2015.

The total extra payout equals about $400,000 in added salaries during this three-year stretch.

Past and present commissioners — not Murray, he wasn’t elected yet — approved the increases about a year ago knowing full well about these budget problems.

Then add in health insurance costs. Sandusky officials expect to spend $3.4 million on health insurance for city employees in 2014, a 21 percent uptick from a year ago.

About the same number of employees are on the city’s plan this year compared to 2013.

Cut police, fire?

The fire and police departments collectively consume about two-thirds of Sandusky’s annual budget.

While other employees, such as those working at the greenhouse and on streets, suffered staffing setbacks in recent times, few reductions have occurred to police officers and firefighters.

Gutting their budgets only seems fair and reasonable to address money woes, Murray said, and further decreasing other departments already whittled away would make the city “dysfunctional”

“We have to take a look at police and fire” Murray said.

Raise the income tax?

At 1 percent, Sandusky’s income tax rate is among the lowest in northern Ohio.

Norwalk, Port Clinton, Elyria and Lorain all have higher rates, according to Murray’s presentation.

The income tax, tacked onto people working within city boundaries, generated about $6.7 million for Sandusky in 2013.

Commissioners could consider raising the rate to 1.25 percent, which would generate almost an extra $2 million per year, based on 2013 figures.

A majority of voters during an election must approve any income tax increase.

Many residents at the meeting said they would approve an increase if — and only if — commissioners reserved these funds for specific improvements, such as extra workers, road repairs or park upgrades.

Community members also want to see a visual return on their money if taxes increase. Some examples involve more police officers to deter violent crime, or firefighters slashing response times.

Fix it or quit it?

Murray classified City Hall as a grossly inadequate facility.

In 2013, the building’s total utility costs per square foot totaled $2.57 — triple the cost of what an energy-efficient building’s bill would be.

A recent analysis by Sandusky’s chief building official, George Poulos, determined city officials must spend $6.7 million in taxpayer money to make necessary upgrades inside the almost 60-year-old building on Meigs Street.

Many commissioners have said they prefer moving to another building. Poulos said he could build an entirely new structure for $3.3 million, half the renovation expense.

Murray said he’s willing to sell City Hall, temporarily move City Hall offices elsewhere and find a building better suited for Sandusky’s needs.

Some residents seemed fearful officials could parlay money from a hypothetical tax increase and place it toward upgrading or relocating City Hall.

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