CIRCLEVILLE — Providing more money for police and firefighters may find its way before voters in November after a City Council committee recommended raising the city’s income tax from 2 percent to 2.5 percent to give safety forces the additional funding they say is desperately needed.
By a 2-1 vote, the three-person Finance Committee, chaired by Council Member Barry Keller, voted Tuesday to move two companion pieces of legislation over to the full City Council to consider. The suggested levy would generate about $1.2 million and is earmarked for the departments’ personnel and equipment needs.
Comprising Keller, and fellow council members Todd Brady and Tom Spring, the committee held a roughly hour-long meeting in which they heard from the city administration including HR Director Tony Chamberlain, Police Chief Shawn Baer and Fire Chief Brian Thompson and other council members.
Chamberlain went over present staffing levels and what they are approved for by ordinance. Presently. there are five police officer positions, two communication officer positions, three firefighter/EMT positions, 18 part-time firefighter/EMT positions and one captain position that are all unfunded and unfilled.
He said about $910,000 of the estimated $1.2 million annual levy amount would go toward personnel. That number equates to roughly 76 percent of the total. Making capital improvements to the departments, such as buying equipment, would consume the remaining 24 percent.
Chamberlain said the administration worked with the police and fire unions to get their blessing ensuring the increase would be considered as supplemental funds and not used to replace funding from the general fund.
Spring was the lone no vote on the two measures, citing his disagreement with the funding type but not the need for additional revenue.
“I acknowledge and respect that we have underfunded our safety forces in the city. There are communities that have a smaller population that have more police and more fire than the city; I don’t know how we’ve limped along for so long with reduced staffing,” he said.
Spring suggested looking at a property tax or making the income tax a general expenses levy versus specifically allotted to the safety forces. He cited a recent Moody’s Report, which rated the city’s credit worthiness, that said the city had a high reliance on income tax for revenue and questioned the fairness an income tax for which 50 percent of the population would pick up the tab.
“We do need more funding for our safety forces, I am just questioning the approach and I favor a current expenses levy and I think we should have had more discussion about a real estate tax levy,” he said.
Spring wasn’t the sole council person asking about alternatives.
Council Member Sherri Theis also asked council to consider other revenue forms.
“It’s going to hit our people hard,” she said. “Of our taxpayers in the city, 36 percent make less than $25,000. This is a flat tax. At 2.5 percent, everyone pays that whether you make $10,000 or $200,000 a year.”
Amid the discussion about what funding form to follow, department chiefs Thompson and Baer outlined the dire needs their departments have for additional manpower and funding.
Thompson said they have two five-person shifts and one four-person shift, but one of the five person shifts is down a person due to an injury.
Thompson said if the department can get those numbers up to seven people on a shift, there are more options the department has when responding to the citizens’ needs. He told council that he has firefighters who are used to working 36, 48, 72 hour shifts.
Thompson said the first responders understand that the safety forces are not trying to compound “money woes with money woes.” However, the first people who will get called are the elected officials when [the responders] don’t show up to a scene because they are somewhere else and nobody else is available.
Baer told council his department has one officer that patrols the city north of Main Street, another that patrols south of Main Street, his detectives are on the road and there are no drug officers working.
“Those people involved in that drug trade that caused the shooting, we were aware of it,” he said of the Sunday shooting on Walnut Street. “We knew all about it. Your detectives were wearing uniforms working the streets. There were no drug cops period over the last several weeks.”
“The squad had to leave the scene early because there weren’t enough officers to provide security while we were chasing the bad guys,” he said. “There were no detectives out there.”
Baer also said there are several police vehicles out of service due to maintenance and there not being any more money in the budget to fix them.
“I can’t even do an oil change, nothing,” he said.
Baer said the city must act and immediately because the state of its safety forces is not sustainable.
“Whatever you do it’s got to be right now,” he said.
Baer said he has no problem leaving the vote up to the citizens.
“I have no problem putting the fire department and the police department in the hands of the voters. I know they will take care of us,” he said.
Keller opened up the floor to the public and two people spoke including Richard Verito.
Verito challenged council to find ways to fund the safety forces without raising taxes, arguing that taxes should be lowered to make Circleville a more attractive place to live and work which would in turn increase revenue through growing numbers.
“Instead of always taking the easy way out by raising taxes, figure it out by not raising taxes,” he said. “The answer is not always higher taxes. Where does the money go to and who is being held accountable. I have to work within a budget and that’s what you guys need to do and to stop putting it on the citizens to raise taxes and raise taxes. If you lower taxes, you draw more people to the community and raise money that way.”