Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nov. 2010: Chillicothe Rejects Sulzer's "Safety Levy"

Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer, whose proposed “safety levy was rejected by voters.

For purposes of a comparison with Portsmouth, which I will make in my next posting, what follows is  a brief account of the  proposed income tax increase that was put on the ballot  last November in Chillicothe in response to that city’s budget deficit. As a result of the Great Recession, Chillicothe like many cities in the United States had a deficit in 2010. But it could have been much worse, for Mayor Joe Sulzer had previously reduced  city expenses by cutting  salaries of city employees by 2 percent and laying off  33 of those  employees, including five in the  fire and two in the police department. More police would have been laid off, but in September 2010 the city received a federal grant that saved the jobs of several of them.  Sulzer’s cost cutting did not stop with layoffs.  He closed a fire station and ordered a reduction in overtime in the police and fire departments. Overtime is one of the hidden costs of police and fire personnel that former Portsmouth  mayor Murray tried to reduce. Imagine what would have happened if, instead of three city employees,  she had laid off  as many as 33.
But Mayor  Sulzer’s  cost cutting was not enough to balance Chillicothe’s budget. There was still a projected deficit of  $164,000 for 2010. The Chillicothe  City Council called on him to take further action. So, a year ago, in April 2010,  he announced he would ask voters in the November 2010 election to approve a 0.4 increase in the city income tax, raising the tax from 1.6 to 2 percent. The 0.4 tax increase was expected to raise $2.6 million dollars, more than enough to cover the anticipated $2.4 million dollar 2011deficit.
Since most of  the income tax increase would go to  pay for costs associated with the salaries, pensions and benefits of the police and fire personnel, whose primary responsibility is to protect lives and property, Sulzer called the proposed increase tax “the safety levy.” In letters to the Chillicothe Gazette, and on Topix and Facebook, angry citizens objected not only  to the tax increase but also to its being called a “safety levy,” accusing the mayor and the police and fire departments  of using scare tactics. “We’re hearing a lot of skepticism out there,” a detective told a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. “They think it’s a scare tactic, but it’s not.” The skeptics the detective referred to disagreed. They thought the issue was not public safety but the high cost to taxpayers of Chillicothe’s public employees and the police and fire personnel in particular.
Safety Levy Committee

Mayor Sulzer, the chiefs of the police and fire departments,  the president of the city council and others, formed the Safety Levy Committee, which registered with the Ross County Board of Elections. Prior to the November 2nd election, the  Safety Levy Committee conducted a campaign to educate citizens on the role of  police and fire personnel in protecting lives and property. On their own time, members of the police and fire departments went door to door as part of the education campaign. To win the hearts and minds of  voters, the police and fire departments sponsored  a “Party in the Park,” featuring live music and a cornhole tournament.
Opponents of the tax increase countered with their own education campaign, forming  a committee called Citizens Invalidating Tax Increase (CITI). An anti-levy website named Stop the Government Corruption Now  made blistering attacks on the wastefulness and corruption of city government.  The Ross County-Chillicothe Chamber of Commerce produced a detailed analysis of the costs of city government,  focusing on the police and fire departments. The most radical of the Chamber’s suggestions was to eliminate the Chillicothe Police Department and contract with the Ross County Sheriff’s Office  to police the city. It had been done in other communities, the Chamber pointed out, and should be considered in Chillicothe.
Because there was another  ballot issue  upsetting  residents—the use of cameras at stop lights—the turnout for the November 2nd  election was heavy. The levy and the cameras were decisively rejected by voters as were incumbents up for reelection, no matter what their party affiliation. The longtime Republican city auditor William D. Morrissey and the  president of the city council were voted out of office. If the Democratic Mayor Sulzer had been on the ballot, there is no doubt he too would have been voted out of office.  That is probably why  he announced after the defeat of the levy that he would not run for reelection. Because of the defeat of the levy, the police department was expected to lose eight more officers in 2011, including six who were retiring but wouldn’t be replaced, dropping the number on the force to 29. Federal statistics show that cities the size of  Chillicothe  (and Portsmouth)  have police forces that average 44 members, but with more layoffs Chillicothe could drop as low as 29. 
     A member of the police force told the Columbus Dispatch, “It’s an absolute desperation situation.” The police and fire personnel may have thought the situation was desperate, desperate enough to turn to cornholing, perhaps the last refuge of public employees in Ohio, but their critics hailed the defeat of the tax levy as a triumph of democracy as well as  an act of fiscal sanity. An opponent of the levy said the Citizens Invalidating the Tax Increase successfully led the effort to educate the public about the misnamed ‘safety levy.’ Once again, the citizens repudiated the lies spread by the city and voted the levy down in a landslide!” 
     As I mentioned, in my next posting I will compare the Chillicothe and Portsmouth income tax levies, and what they reflect about the two cities, so alike and yet so different.
Will there be a cornhole tournament in Tracy Park before the May 3rd vote on the income tax levy?