Here’s a compilation from the Register of what it calls Sandusky’s Top 10 questions heading into the new year:
1. How will Sandusky balance a budget projecting a $1.1 million deficit?
The only way to offset this red ink by March is to lay off workers.
Payroll accounts for up to 80 percent of Sandusky’s $16.3 million budget in 2014.
Municipal governments, such as Sandusky, must have a balanced budget, where income levels either match or exceed expenses. Commissioners must balance the budget by March.
City commissioners recently agreed on a working model to reduce the deficit, which includes axing six full-time firefighters and one full-time police position in addition to other cuts.
Other departments — parks and recreation, streets, engineering and the greenhouse, among others — are also being scrutinized for possible cuts.
2. Is a 53-person full-time staff the right number for Sandusky fire?
A $1 million federal grant obtained in early 2011 to fund six full-time firefighter positions expired a month ago. City funds, backed by local taxpayers, are paying for these salaries today.
But with a massive shortfall, city funds can’t cover the estimated $500,000 a year needed to keep these six positions.
City commissioners recently rejected a funding plan proposed by Sandusky fire Chief Paul Ricci to swap $500,000 from a vehicle and equipment account into payroll. Ricci’s now trying to leverage an additional $177,000 from the federal government in hopes of funding these positions through May.
Ricci said the department must maintain 53 full-time firefighters to ensure minimum response times.
If cuts do occur, some possible consequences include officials possibly closing two of three fire stations, giving priority to certain calls — rather than responding to emergencies on a first-come, first-served basis — and neglecting non-emergency activities, such as volunteer opportunities and community events.
Commissioner Julie Farrar recently lobbied for a tax hike to inject more income into city coffers.
“The income tax has been 1 percent in this city for (almost 50) years,” Farrar said. “What is wrong with this picture?”
Sandusky’s top revenue source is a 1 percent income tax, tacked onto people working within city boundaries.
At 42 percent of total annual revenues, income taxes should generate about $6.7 million in 2013.
A 1.5 percent tax rate, under the 2013 projections, would collect $10 million annually — seemingly solving Sandusky’s financial woes.
But would city residents support a hike? Any increase would need to be approved by a majority of voters during an election.
4. Will the new trio of commissioners — Dick Brady, Dennis Murray Jr. and Naomi Twine — improve city government?
Murray’s fresh off of completing two terms as a state representative in Columbus, bringing more legislative experience than any other commissioner in recent memory, and perhaps the most ever for a commission seat.
Murray also previously served as a city commissioner and ex officio mayor from 2005 to 2008. He said he wants to become ex officio mayor again. The position’s main responsibility involves setting discussion topics for public meetings and leading meetings.
Brady, who supports Murray for ex officio mayor, also brings experience to commission, serving one year as an appointed official in 2011.
Brady said he’ll use his business background — he owns Sandusky-based Brady Sign and Brady Electric — to make sound financial decisions for Sandusky. He’s also been outspoken on multiple issues facing the city previously ignored by other commissioners.
For the past two years, Twine has headed up Sandusky’s human relations commission, a volunteer committee handling problems residents may have with city services.
Twine also offers strong administrative experience, based upon her role as a top assistant to the Ohio Veterans Home superintendent. She, too, has voiced candid opinions about concerns regarding the budget.
5. Will commissioners make a decision in 2014 whether to sell, stay or renovate City Hall?
Many commissioners and officials have expressed displeasure with City Hall’s condition.
Case in point: Sandusky Municipal Court Judge Erich O’Brien’s courtroom leaks and lacks proper security.
The judge pleaded with commissioners a year ago to make a decision on whether to move, renovate or keep City Hall as is. But no decision has since occurred.
Sandusky’s chief building official George Poulos previously urged commissioners to not renovate the energy-guzzling facility.
Poulos, who prefers to build an entirely new complex rather than renovate City Hall, estimated it would take about $6 million for necessary upgrades inside an almost 60-year-old building.
The City Hall address, 222 Meigs St., could fetch a nice haul if sold to a private developer. This address is valued at $1.72 million, according to the Erie County auditor’s office.
6. Will a partnership with BGSU Firelands occur to revitalize the Sandusky Bay Pavilion?
BGSU Firelands Dean Bill Balzer and other college representatives envision students, both in college and children enrolled in local school districts, coming to the East Water Street facility to study Lake Erie’s ecosystem.
This past fall, Balzer sent a letter to city officials about the university’s interest in either locating an educational center or creating research opportunities at the Sandusky Bay Pavilion. Former city commissioner Diedre Cole spearheaded the initial dialogue with the college about the partnership.
The letter from Balzer came after commissioners voted 4-3 to keep the run-down pavilion property public and not sell it off.
If college representatives make an investment in the pavilion, it could help remedy various environmental concerns, including a contaminated wave pool and many other health hazards, and retain it as both a recreation and education center.
7. Will the Keller Building meet the wrecking ball?
Commissioners in October signed a contract for an excavating company to remove asbestos and complete other environmental work before demolishing the Keller Building.
Commissioners budgeted $550,000 for all related work, which should occur sometime this year.
The property’s demise follows many other blighted buildings coming down in recent years, including the Apex Building on First Street.
8. How will city manager Nicole Ard fare during commission’s new term?
It was smooth sailing for Ard — at about $129,000 annually, she’s the highest-paid city worker — with commission’s majority coalition during the 2012-13 term.
She had strong support from five of the seven commissioners, rarely questioning her leadership skills and constantly defending most of her actions.
But two commissioners, Diedre Cole and Wes Poole, raised serious concerns about Ard based upon a variety of failed initiatives she oversaw.
Cole, in an exhaustive performance review, determined Ard had failed to meet any of the 12 goals set for her in 2012, her first full year as city manager.
Erie County commissioners, meanwhile, also complained about Ard’s lack of interaction.
Members of city commission’s finance committee also nailed Ard for neglecting to present a thoughtful, well-documented budget proposal to address the looming deficit.
City commission spent almost no time publicly reviewing the 2012 and 2013 budgets, documents Ard must present to the elected officials, leading to the financial mess Sandusky faces today.
Brady, Murray and Twine have all been vocal about improvements Ard must make.
9. When will an $8.5 million water lawsuit filed by the city against Erie County see resolution?
Some meetings with lawyers and officials have happened in the past few months, but no major developments providing any sort of closure have occurred since.
In November 2012, city commissioners agreed without a vote or any public discussion to file a lawsuit against Erie County.
The city contends, among other issues, that the county failed to live up to a prior water agreement. The city wants $8.5 million in damages and attorney fees.
10. Will the new commission propose a change in the number of commissioners or other charter changes?
Brady, Murray and Twine all supported decreasing how many commissioners serve, from seven today to five or three in the future.
“I envy Perkins Township and Erie County because you only need (two out of three people) to get something accomplished in these types of governments,” Brady said. “In this government, you need to find three friends to get a 4-3 vote”
Said Murray: “When you have seven people on the commission, it’s too easy for someone to hide and sit in the weeds. You want to gain more cohesiveness? Then the commission needs to be reduced”
And Twine? “I would support going down from seven to five commissioners” she said.