June 29, 2016

Partly cloudy

Ad hoc panel convenes on Brunswick tax, finances

Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — Mayor Dale Strasser’s citizens ad hoc committee had its first meeting Wednesday night to discuss the city’s failed November income tax ballot issue and its financial future.

In November, more than 80 percent of city voters rejected a proposed income tax increase from 1.35 percent to 2.15 percent to help fund several projects, create a funding reserve for the city and hire additional police and fire personnel.

Since then, Brunswick has tried to determine what to do next.

The committee’s seven members were briefed on the city’s finances and operations by City Manager Robert Zienkowski and Finance Director Bill White. Committee members boiled the tax’s failure down to several prominent themes, including rough economic times, lack of clear information about how tax revenue would be spent and mistrust in city council.

The members, who are all city residents, are T.J. Thomas, Don Whitely, James Norman, Kathy Blessinger, Bill Coyle, Al Bartholomew and James Horn.

Thomas said voting on the tax increase was a “survival issue” for him.

“I understand the needs, and I agree with everything you’ve said about the city’s needs. You can sell that to me as a resident as much as you want, but I don’t have any more to give,” Thomas said. “My point of view is something like the ability to help the community out without shelling out my dollars is attractive to me. How can residents help without giving money they don’t have?”

Horn noted he felt unsure how the tax’s revenues would have been spent and couldn’t support an increase without more information.

“I’m not here to help campaign for a tax increase,” he said. “I need hard facts about what the increase is going to go for.”

Horn added he didn’t want to vote against funding for police and fire in November but wasn’t comfortable with ballot language.

“If you polled the people who voted, they weren’t voting against police and fire, but there was no option,” Horn said. “You had to take the whole thing or get nothing.”

Several members said they were skeptical that council would have spent additional tax money as promised because the ballot language said the tax’s revenues were set to go into the city’s general fund.

“When I looked at (the failed tax increase), we’re putting the money in the general fund,” Blessinger said. “Council could spend it any way they want, and to be honest, I don’t trust them at all.”

White noted council passed a resolution outlining how the tax money would be spent and that money in the general fund is used for several city services, including the police and fire departments.

Norman said citizens weren’t involved enough when the tax increase went on the ballot and noted “petty arguing” between council members affects residents’ confidence.

“You’ve got to get citizens involved,” he said. “This tax didn’t just fail, it failed miserably.”

The committee agreed to meet on a regular basis and will organize more at its next meeting.

When Strasser first wanted to form a citizens committee, he was told the city charter didn’t allow for him to form such a panel through his office using city resources. Instead, Strasser funded and formed the committee himself and selected seven citizens to be members.

“I think it’s important they see what’s going on in the city,” Strasser said. “Council’s wrestling with the idea of an income tax, and we can see how these residents feel about it.”

Strasser added council didn’t take residents into account when they proposed the tax increase in November.

“I just think that council kind of shrugged off the residents the last time,” Strasser said. “Economic times are bad — that’s one of the reasons why it failed — but I think council should have been a little more open with the residents.”

At the end of December, the committee-of-the-whole decided polling residents and talking to focus groups would be the best way to take residents’ pulses on funding issues. Ward 3 Councilman Joseph Delsanter said some discussions have taken place since then.

“We are looking at both options right now and we’ll be determining which will be the most effective way to get the information from the public on their views on their priorities and what their understanding of the needs of the city are,” Delsanter said. “We’ll be making a decision soon on that.”

Delsanter said he hasn’t ruled out working with the mayor’s committee.

“The formation of a group of people who are interested in what we’re trying to achieve here with funding for the city can only help,” he said. “Having them take an interest is going to help in delivering our message by providing a core group of people who are going to be closely informed. They would always be welcomed at public meetings.”

Schaefer may be reached at 330-721-4048 or hschaefer@ohio.net.