Municipal

The City of Mansfield Municipal Building.

MANSFIELD -- It was already going to be a tough year financially for the City of Mansfield -- and that was before the coronavirus pandemic, which will certainly siphon off general fund revenue.

It's about to get a lot worse, if mayors from around Ohio can be believed.

More than a month ago, just before Mansfield City Council approved the 2020 appropriations budget, Finance Director Linn Steward warned members the city was not living within its means.

"We are not being fiscally responsible having our appropriations this far in the red. That's where the problem is. We are overspending. We are not staying within our means," Steward said during a finance committee meeting on March 2.

The city's budget called for estimated general fund revenues of $26.4 million with total operational appropriations of $30.6 million. Those estimated expenses are general fund appropriations of $14.1 million and $16.5 million in transfers to other funds, including $15.4 million to the safety fund.

Just more than a month -- and statewide ordered closures due to COVID-19 -- later, the three-term finance director warned council the city stands to lose at least 20 percent of its expected revenue, which would be about $5.2 million.

During that meeting April 9, Steward told council she could provide more information at the next meeting, which is coming up Tuesday at 7 p.m.

It's not complicated math. The city relies heavily upon income tax to fill its general fund and statewide jobless claims over the last month were at 855,197 as of April 11.

To put that in perspective, the total for the last four weeks of claims is 139,685 more than the combined total of 715,512 for the last two years.

According to to a story Thursday in the Columbus Dispatch, mayors of larger cities around the state have already taken steps to cut expenses.

Dayton has furloughed 469 employees. Toledo has idled 326 city employees on temporary emergency leave. The mayor of Cincinnati projects an $18 million budget gap and has furloughed 1,700 city workers.

Granted, those are much larger cities than Mansfield and its 46,000 residents. But Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler said his city doesn't have a rainy day fund and may have to cut 20 percent of his safety forces.

Those mayors said assistance for cities from the federal government must be forthcoming. The $2.2 trillion relief package recently enacted included $150 billion for 36 cities with more than 500,000 residents. In Ohio, only Columbus qualified.

TIME FOR TALK: There is no legislation scheduled to be voted on during Tuesday evening's Mansfield City Council meeting.

That should leave plenty of time for local legislators to discuss with Steward the looming financial ramifications.

Steward's warnings on April 9 came during a council meeting in which the finance committee tabled requests from the fire department to spend $42,863 from its unappropriated general funds for new equipment.

Those funds included $18,600 to purchase turnout gear for five new firefighters, waiting to be trained. The decision didn't sit well with fire Chief Steve Strickling, who will begin his 29th year with the department in June, the last seven as chief.

A planned lack of 2020 capital spending in the safety forces, save for two new cruisers in the police department, also concerns police Chief Keith Porch, who has also been with the MPD for more than two decades, rising to chief in 2019.

mansfield chiefs

Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch (left) and fire Chief Steve Strickling are concerned how budget restrictions will impact their departments in 2020.

The city's police and fire departments are funded by a 0.5 percent safety forces income tax approved by voters in 1988 and a portion of the 0.25 percent PRIDE tax voters approved in 2014.

Before COVID-19, Steward said, the city's safety-service fund began 2020 with a $1.4 million carryover. Steward estimated the two taxes will generate $12.3 million in 2020.

With police and fire appropriations of $29.2 million, that requires $15.4 million to be transferred into the account from the general fund to balance the fund, according to Steward.

Strickling provided different numbers to Richland Source. He said Steward has consistently underestimated revenues and overestimated expenses each year in the safety forces.

For example, he said, Steward underestimated safety forces revenue by $681,272 in 2019 and overestimated expenses by $966,634 -- a net difference of $1.6 million.

He said Mansfield as a whole actually began 2020 with a $5.6 million unappropriated carryover, not the $1.1 million cited by Steward.

The finance director disagreed with Strickling.

"The city began the year with $5.6 million of cash available for appropriations in 2020. However, 'requested and approved' appropriations in 2020 exceeded estimated revenues by nearly $4.2 million," Steward said. "An additional $132,000 was set aside for reserves, $100,000 for police cruisers and $100,000 for a boiler replacement (in the municipal building), leaving $1.1 million unappropriated.

"The reduction of cash from $5.6 million to an unappropriated balance for $1.1 million is the result of approving a budget that exceeds estimated revenues," she said. "With an expected decline in estimated revenue as a result of COVID-19, it's safe to say there is no longer a $1.1 million unappropriated balance."

Strickling and Porch both said they didn't understand how the "transfer in" to the safety forces fund from the general fund has increased from $11.4 million in 2018 to an estimated $15.4 million in 2020.

The chiefs said negotiated wage increases with fire and police department employees could not account for that large an increase.

Steward said safety forces operational expenses increased to $29.3 million in 2020 from $25.7 million in 2018. She said pay for personnel accounted for $2.4 million of the $3.6 million increase.

"Unfortunately, when all of your available cash and estimated revenues are being used to fund everyday operating expenses, including salaries and benefits, then there is not enough funds available for equipment," Steward said. "For 2020, the fire department budgeted $73,500 in repair and maintenance accounts, which can be used for unexpected repairs.

"In this current environment with reduced revenues, I think it is reasonable to wait before making any capital purchases."

Both chiefs said their departments are operating below authorized manpower and fear cuts in budgets will still require layoffs and reduction in services.

Steward said 84 percent of the safety fund budget is used for salaries and benefits.

"If there is a 20-percent reduction in revenue, the mayor and his staff will have to make some difficult decisions pertaining to the budget," Steward said. "Fortunately, we were able to create a budget stabilization fund for situations like that this that is currently funded at 95 percent of its target balance.

"As finance director, I am in charge of safekeeping the city's funds. I know the safety forces are doing the best they can during this difficult time, but I cannot tell you if they are sufficiently staffed. That is a question for the administration."

She said there 227 employees in the safety forces, including civilians, in 2009. The city went into fiscal emergency in 2010 and the administration has budgeted for 214 employees in those departments in 2020.

Steward said the revenue from the safety forces tax and the PRIDE tax simply do not fully fund the two departments.

"Appropriations in the safety fund continue to rise at a much higher rate than the revenue generated by these additional tax levies," she said. "As a result, additional support is needed from the general fund."

UP TO THE RESIDENTS: Both chiefs said it's up to the city leaders and residents to determine what kind of safety forces they wish to have serving them.

Both also said they and their leadership teams spend a great deal of time seeking outside grants to help provide funding for personnel and equipment.

"When I rose through the ranks of the police administration, I was shocked to learn how much we depend on (outside) grants," Porch said.

Strickling said a 20-percent cut in the department budget could result in the layoff of 12 to 15 firefighters.

Porch said both departments plan for capital expenses each year, which may not be approved, forcing them to scramble in future years.

"I understand the decision-making process. We ultimately have a pot of money and it's up to council and the mayor to ultimately decide how it's spent. We will live with what we are told to do and provide the best service we can," Porch said.

"But we have gotten out of the (capital) rotation and kicked the can down the road. When I say I need six cars, I need six cars. I will not put officers in unsafe equipment.

"What kind of police department do you want? What kind of fire department do you want? I absolutely believe the citizens of this city support the police and fire departments. That's proven through those levies."

============================================

The public can view the "virtual meeting" Tuesday evening on the city's Facebook page. 

There will be a finance committee meeting at 6:35 to discuss pending legislation. Council caucus begins at 7 p.m. and its legislative session follows immediately thereafter. All of the meetings will be live-streamed on the City of Mansfield's Facebook page.

Citizens with comments or questions should email them in advance to citycouncil@ci.mansfield.oh.us.

The city asks that those emailing include their name and address so it can be forwarded to the correct council member. Residents are also asked to specify if they wish their comment or question to be read during the meeting.

Support Our Journalism

Do you want to know the who, what, where, why and how in local news? Become a Source member to support the most diverse coverage of our region.

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"