I enjoy a good rollercoaster ride. It’s exciting. The blood rushes to your head. Your heart races. Some people sit and smile, grinning from ear-to-ear as the rollercoaster cars drop straight down, streak toward the sky and slam us sideways. Other people scream. They start screaming as the cars are pulled up the first hill and they don’t stop screaming until the ride ends. People always react differently.
All of Clinton County, including the city of Wilmington, has been on an economic rollercoaster for more than 10 years. We’ve all been riding that rollercoaster. I’ve been watching it first hand, up-close and personal.
As a new county commissioner in January of 2005, I was shocked to find out that the county auditor was concerned that we might not have enough money in the county coffers to make our first payroll. Our savings, or carry-over, was almost non-existent. We barely squeaked by. Numerous, difficult cuts were made.
Before summer came, we knew that we had exhausted all avenues of belt-tightening. We could not find enough money to get us out of the crisis. To continue to provide services, we needed more money.
After consulting with all the department supervisors and financial experts we could find, we followed the advice of our legal counsel and implemented a 0.5 percent sales tax increase.
Some people will still argue and disagree with that decision, but I am convinced that the majority of Clinton County citizens have benefited from that tough decision.
Without that sales tax increase, we would have had no choice but to cut services to our citizens. Funding to all of the county departments would have been cut. There would have been less funding for courts, law enforcement and all other services that people expect and should receive from their government would have been cut.
Now, the current board of county commissioners can consider allowing that tax to expire. Some good things have happened to the county to make that possible. The funds from the sale of the hospital have allowed the county to pay off almost all of their debt. Hospital funds were used to establish a new, high-tech emergency communication system that might not have been possible otherwise. Casino funds from the state have flowed to all 88 Ohio counties since 2013. Clinton County receives about $500,000 per year from the casino fund. Those funds are kept by the county and are not shared with the townships, villages or the city. All of this is good for the county.
At the same time, Gov. Kasich has greatly improved our state’s financial situation. He has decreased our personal and business tax rates. The state carryover increased from just a few cents to several billion dollars. To achieve this, state funding for local government has dried up almost completely. I support the governor’s approach to state financial recovery, but the money that used to come from the state now has to come from local taxpayers. This is a problem that is facing all of Ohio’s cities and towns. Cleveland’s mayor is proposing an increase from 2 to 2.5 percent in their city income tax to make up for the reduction in state funding.
The City of Wilmington rode this tortuous rollercoaster with the rest of the county. Significant budget cuts have been made over the past decade. A hiring freeze and wage freeze were implemented. Only essential personnel, dispatchers and some safety services personnel were replaced. No city department has been exempt. Extreme cuts were made to the city fire department. The police department made several significant cuts. Our street maintenance department has delayed many significant projects. All of these cuts impact every citizen.
People say we should just tighten our belts. We have tightened our belts.
People say we should make cuts. We have made cuts.
Recently, WKRC in Cincinnati aired a critical report on housing code enforcement in Wilmington. They focused on a rental property on Grant Street that is in horrible, horrible condition. It’s a problem that city code enforcement officials should have addressed years ago … when I was mayor.
The problem is that we did what voters recommended. We made cuts to city services. Code enforcement was one of the services that received major funding and staffing cuts. Now, we are paying the price.
We cannot allow these cuts to last forever. The economy is recovering. Jobs are now available, but local economic improvements have been offset by significant cuts from state and federal government.
Now, we need to consider how to continue our recovery, how to fund local needs with local dollars.
The rollercoaster ride is not over. We’re still speeding along. Between the smiles and the screams, we need to decide, as a community, what services we’re willing to pay for and where the money is coming from.
Randy Riley is president of Wilmington City Council.