Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Levees and Levies: Portsmouth, Chillicothe, and Marion

A county map of Ohio, showing three cities, Portsmouth, Chillicothe, and Marion, the county seats of Scioto, Ross, and Marion counties, located approximately in the same latitude in the so-called Midwestern Rustbelt. The three medium-sized cities, with shrinking populations of 20,000, 22,000 and 32,000, respectively, are currently attempting to deal, as are many cities in Ohio, with sizable budget deficits.

“Levees Ready to Burst as Rain Pounds Central U.S.,” the headlines say. Because Portsmouth has a levee, or flood wall, the  heaviest rains in many years will not stop the voters on the  May 3, 2011, primary from having their say on a proposed increase in the city income tax. After record spring rains, Portsmouth is fortunate to have a levee to prevent floods but  it is unfortunate in  that it may soon get a tax levy that may prove as bad for the city as the earth levee has proved good. What Portsmouth needs, but which it will probably  not get because of its corrupt government, is a financial flood wall to protect it from rising taxes.
          Last year, Chillicothe tried to address its budget deficit  by cutting the number of city employees and increasing the city income tax. While many Chillicotheans were in favor of cutting the cost of city government—and the number of city employees—they were definitely not in favor of an increase in the income tax, which they rejected by a wide margin. On  May 3rd, Portsmouth voters will decide whether to raise the city income tax. The proposed  so-called “safety levy” will be on the ballot, but there will be no proposal to reduce the  cost of  city government by reducing the number of city employees, or at least their salaries and benefits. What mayor unelect Malone has proposed to deal with the budget deficit is to increase the city income tax by  0.6 percent, which is larger than the 0.4 income tax increase that Mayor Sulzer had failed to get passed in Chillicothe. It doesn’t sound like much, 0.6, but each percentage point represents millions of dollars.
In contrast to Chillicothe and Portsmouth, Marion is not considering raising its income tax rate, which currently stands at 1.75 percent. Instead of raising the rate to 2 percent, as the mayors of Portsmouth and Chillicothe want to do, Marion’s mayor,  Scott Schertzer, proposed cutting the high cost of city government, the chief item of which in almost all cities is the cost of  city employees, in salaries and benefits. According to the Marion Star, Schertzer proposed eliminating the city’s pick-up of employee pensions, the sick leave sell-back benefits, the health savings accounts and the insurance premium caps. He also proposed implementing 64 unpaid furlough hours  during the last seven months of 2011 to save an estimated $1.1 million. Schertzer presented his proposals to the six unions representing Marion’s  public employees, and he set April 14th as the deadline for the unions to respond. He said that if  he could not reach an agreement with all six unions, he would begin extensive layoffs beginning May 1st. Unions representing administrators, maintenance personnel, street, sanitation and wastewater workers refused to renegotiate existing contracts. But the union representing the Fire Department, which could have lost as many as a third of its personnel, entered into negotiations with the mayor. They offered their own cost cutting package, which they claimed would save the city even more than the mayor’s cost cutting package but which would not require drastic reduction in the number of fire fighters. By contrast, Portsmouth mayors, such as Bauer, Kalb, and Malone, don’t negotiate with, but rather capitulate to, public employees, who constitute their hard-core constituency. They know if they lose the support of public employees, they are toast.
On  Monday, April 25, 2011, which was yesterday,  the Marion City Council voted in favor of the agreement  that Mayor Schertzer and the International Association of Fire Fighters,  representing the Marion  Fire Department, had negotiated. Lt. Wade Ralph, vice president of IAFF Local 379, said the fire fighters’ concessions would save the city’s general fund $368,895, which was more than the $340,731 saving that had been sought  by Schertzer in a proposal he made earlier in April. Schertzer praised the cooperative spirit of IAAF Local 379,  and he rescinded  the scheduled layoff of twelve fire fighters. In addition, the  fire fighters got a one-year extension of their current contract.

Lt. Wade Ralph and Mayor Scott Schertzer, who negotiated contract

Portsmouth and Marion: Night and Day

The contrast between Marion and Portsmouth and between Mayor Schertzer and Mayor-unelect Malone in dealing with budget deficits is like night and day. The Marion Star reported last week that twelve of  Marion’s fire fighters and five of its police officers had received layoff notices from Mayor  Schertzer. Mayor-unelect David Malone of Portsmouth, by contrast, has not sent out layoff notices to any city employees. In fact, Malone  rehired employees who had been laid off by the previous elected mayor, Jane Murray. The case of Lizzie Borden proved that you can’t chop your mother up in Massachusetts, and the case of Mayor Murray proved that you can’t layoff  public employees in Portsmouth, Ohio, without being treating like a war criminal.  The  mobilization of public employees against Murray was immediate and effective, and she was recalled from office before she finished the  first year of her term. There was more than one reason why Murray was recalled, but the most important by far was the perception by city employees that with her as mayor their jobs were in jeopardy. Murray’s laying off of three city employees was viewed as an atrocity. She was accused of being cruel, crazy, and tyrannical.
In terms of, character, intelligence, and toughness, the contrast between Malone and Murray is striking, and so  is the contrast between Malone and Marion’s mayor Schertzer, who  prior to being elected mayor was an educator in Marion County for thirteen years as well as an employee of the Ohio State Treasury and the Ohio Secretary of State. Schertzer did not become mayor to servilely serve the crooks who control the city.  Like mayors Bauer and Kalb before him, the philandering preacher Malone is a tool drawn from Portsmouth’s  ample pool of con artists, fools, and failures  that the rich white trash of Portsmouth draw on to fill public offices.  Malone raised no hopes in the people when after playing  the game of political musical chairs he finally got to be mayor, as he had failed to do when he twice ran for the office.  The only thing Malone raised when he became mayor was the  water rates, which were increased  by a whopping 18 percent.
It may be in the short-term interest but it is not in the long-term interest of Portsmouth  public employees, including its  fire fighters and police, that the income tax increase should be passed. It will help all the citizens of Portsmouth if the state declares Portsmouth in a fiscal emergency and steps in to require the city  to operate on  a sound financial basis. Passing the income tax levy on May 3rd will postpone state intervention, and the financial reckoning, but it will not prevent it. The gains that Portsmouth  public employees have been  able to “negotiate”  from incompetent and corrupt mayors will probably be paid for dearly by everyone, including the fire fighters and the police, in the not too distant future. The people of Portsmouth cannot afford to  have mayors like Bauer, Kalb and Malone, and an enabling city auditor like Trent Williams, who has played a financial shell game for the last decade. We now have a levee to protect us from the rising river,  but where is the financial flood wall that will protect us from rising levies?

Noah Says

Biblically,  the world ended in a flood,
With everything but the ark buried in mud.
But now, as water rates rise and global warming waxes,
Noah says, “Goddamn it, Mayor-unelect, no more taxes!”