Here is episode 3 of the Wilmington Bulletin Podcast, where I interview Marque Jones, City of Wilmington Tax Commissioner. Hope you find this informative! It is also available on Google Play and iTunes…
Last Thursday, May 19th, City Council held its first reading on sending a 0.5% tax increase to the ballot. As I have written before, I believe that this increase is necessary to ensure that vital services in the city continue and are improved. I will try not to belabor this point, but instead want to focus on the tactics taken by certain council members during last weeks meeting.
The lone no vote on the first reading was Lonnie Stuckert. This vote came as somewhat of a surprise to me, as well as to some other observers, but was not altogether shocking. Mr. Stuckert has spoken against tax increases since his campaign, as did his father (who he replaced as 2nd Ward representative). Unfortunately, Mr. Stuckert has failed to provide any concrete plans for cuts. He has said multiple times that there are alternatives, but has yet to present them. This is what is most frustrating to me. When somebody makes the decision to run for council, they must be prepared to present solutions to problems, and not just be a naysayer. For Mr. Stuckert to come to the last meeting unprepared for the criticisms that he has fairly received about his lack of plans is not acceptable. This conversation has been ongoing since the first council meeting of the year, and there was a special council meeting the previous week. I hope that he does present some of his ideas soon, because I believe that it is important for council to continue to discuss fiscal responsibility and the future of the city. Until then, Mr. Stuckert cannot lead members of the community to believe that this problem can be fixed without a revenue increase and not be willing to lead that charge with concrete ideas. It is too late in the process for nebulous proposals.
Councilwoman Randi Milburn has also been on the fence about putting a tax increase on the ballot, but she did end up voting yes on the first reading. My hope is the Mrs. Milburn will work with the other members of the finance committee to work on a long-term plan that focuses on responsible spending for the city. It is easy to talk about budgeting responsibility, but as a member of finance committee, she can be an integral part in leading that charge. As to a bully campaign, however, it is important to separate presenting facts and bullying voters. It is necessary to let voters know what will be cut if the tax increase does not pass, even if that does include police. There needs to be a campaign about the reality of the dire situation we are in. However, I believe this can be done tactfully and in a non-threatening way.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out for second and third reading. I hope that the council members who have been skeptical will either present alternatives or throw their support behind the plan. The tax increase can succeed at the ballot behind the full support of council, and with plans to control spending in the future. Mrs. Milburn and Mr. Stuckert are right in that we must be prudent. However, the reality is clear-the City of Wilmington is in financial trouble due to a wide variety of factors, and the cuts that would have to be made to get to even in the budget would be extremely painful to those working for the city and for residents of the city. Fiscal responsibility and tax increases are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. Everyone’s voices should be heard as council moves forward, and it is vital for citizens to know that the tax increase is needed and that the money coming in will be spent in a manner that is responsible and desirable for members of the community.
To all of the members of Wilmington City Council and Mayor Stanforth:
Thank you for hosting the public meeting on Thursday about Wilmington’s current financial situation. I believe that for many in Wilmington, the information presented by Service Director Brian Shidaker and Council President Randy Riley was valuable and informational. Finance Committee Chairman Mark McKay did an admirable job of allowing conversation between council members to flow without much interruption. Although the meeting was long, the discussion between council and among the members of the public who attended was good, and there were several issues brought to the table.
As it seems right now, Finance Committee seems to be leaning towards a recommendation to put a 0.5% earnings tax increase (likely temporary for five years). I believe that this is the best course of action in order to get something passed in fall election, and I hope that Finance Committee and Council work to bring this to the voters in this fall’s general election.
In my opinion, Council must consider the following issues:
- How does Council assure the people of Wilmington that this money will be spent appropriately and prudently? In my opinion, Council must create a specific spending plan that shows how the money will be spent if the voters approve the tax increase. This plan should focus on the future of Wilmington, and how Council plans to make it a brighter one. I believe that it should include street repairs and property maintenance/building code enforcement specifically, as these are two items that many in Wilmington have expressed interest in.
- Is a temporary tax the best way to go? I believe that it will be easier to pass, but I am not sure whether it is totally honest. Would the city be prepared to lose roughly $2 million from one year to the next in 5 years? It seems like we need significant monies to work to improve the city, and I am not sure if we can accomplish it all in 5 years. If the city can propose a spending plan that gets itself back to a level of services that people in Wilmington can agree with, I hope that Council will move forward with some considerations of putting a permanent tax on the ballot, but if you choose to pursue a temporary tax, that is an understandable move.
- All Council members should be prepared to answer difficult questions about the city budget. If there are still Council members who believe that the city can cut itself out of this after Thursday night, I encourage you to present these plans. If not, I encourage you to admit you were wrong to publicly say this to get elected, and that we must move forward to provide a desirable level of services to the citizens of Wilmington.
As members of Council have pointed out, once Council moves the issue to a ballot, it must stay out of the campaigning. Ohio law prohibits government/public monies to be spent on most campaigns. Therefore, there will have to be work to create such a committee. As I have been a close and sometimes critical observer of this process, I would like to volunteer to head such a citizen’s committee, which would recruit volunteers and provide information for the passage of the tax increase. There is little doubt in my mind that with a good outreach campaign with Wilmington citizens from across the political spectrum, we can accomplish the goal of passing this tax increase and working to provide the residents of this incredible city the services they need for a city they can be proud of.
Finance Committee is, at this moment, the most important and temporarily powerful body in the city. It has also shown itself to be the most inept. This week’s meeting may have been the most disappointing, with the committee rehashing the same discussion they have had for the last four months, with almost no progress. Here are some highlights:
- Finance Committee spent almost the entire 30 minute meeting discussing what kind of special meeting to have. Chairman Mark McKay started the meeting by requesting a special Finance Committee meeting next week because he wanted to make sure they could spend enough time on the issue and that it was the only thing on the agenda. This appears to be a stall tactic. There were only a couple of other small, quick agenda items that took less than ten minutes before they got to the budget discussion.
- President of Council Randy Riley essentially took over the meeting, pushing for a whole group special council meeting next Thursday to discuss the budget. He openly advocated towards coercing members of council to not take any vote or make any motions towards a vote on anything regarding the budget.
- Eventually, a workshop was decided upon, with the administration presenting expenses of the city. Does Finance Committee not have that information? Did they not pass the budget?
- Nathan Kraatz, reporter for the Wilmington News Journal, asked Finance Committee if they wanted the administration to present 15% in cuts that would need to happen to balance the budget. Chairperson McKay first asked where this number came from and then requested that it happen; subsequently, the administration said they would not be able to pull that off. City resident Mark Rembert asked why finance committee would not be recommending that. There was no real answer. There was also no statement as to why Finance Committee hasn’t taken any actions on the numbers it got almost two months ago from the administration as to potential cuts.
So what will happen at next week’s council “workshop?” It certainly sounds like this is not the public forum that Finance Committee was hoping for at the beginning of the year, but is more of an education for City Council itself about the budget. Finance Committee is under the gun to take action, but Chairperson McKay seems to think they are ahead of the game because it is only May. I hope that Thursday’s workshop will give Council and the Finance Committee enough information to act, but after this last Finance Committee meeting, I am skeptical.
One item that I have purposely not written about here is the matter of the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau funding. The reason I haven’t is because, for some reason, this funding has been tied to the Parks and Recreation Department, where my mother is the director. However, I wanted to give a quick overview of what happened at the meeting. I want to state, firmly, that I do not believe this money should be tied into parks in any way. I believe that this is about making sure General Fund monies are being spent wisely.
The CVB, through Executive Director Debbie Stamper, released a statement on the potential for losing some funding. In it, she said that the hotel lodging tax was “not public money.” She reiterated most of this at the meeting, but backtracked a little. Councilman Matt Purkey and Mayor John Stanforth were quick to say that this was wrong. The CVB argues that this money only comes from transient guests, and that it should be spent on these purposes. In the letter to Council, the CVB took the bold stance of telling Council how to spend its tax money, specifying that any money that the City withholds from the CVB should be spent to improve the City parks to attract tournaments (essentially, to increase the amount of revenue from lodging taxes).
Judiciary, especially Councilman Purkey, did an exceptional job of trying to separate the issue from Parks and make it about tightening up. Purkey pointed out the CVB Christmas cards as an example (I could point to many more, including a party for local people) of waste by the CVB. I could not agree more that there is bloat in the organization. The CVB has avoided much of this for years, but it seems that now might be the time when there is political will to make sure that General Fund monies are being spent in an appropriate and closely-watched manner.
City Council meeting
City Council was highlighted by the community fluoridation public forum. I will be doing a podcast on this, and encourage you to listen to that. It was certainly a good discussion, with both sides presenting arguments without getting nasty or angry. I believe that all of the concerns brought up, from the effect on kidneys to skeletal and dental fluorosis, were well handled by the physicians and dentist that were present. It is important for us to remember that many of these debates are taking place between people for whom these efforts will have minimal benefit-generally, adults that can afford dental coverage. This is sometimes ignored as we look at the benefits of fluoridation, unfortunately, but it must be an important part of the consideration if the issue moves to a vote.
After the public forum, the rest of the meeting went by without much discussion, save for the repeal of the G-1 Gateway Zone. This was met mostly without opposition, except for Mayor Stanforth. The mayor, who has indicated that he supports simplifying zoning in Wilmington, wondered if there would be an impetus to do so if the G-1 was repealed. In my opinion, the mayor makes a good point in that the city has lost some of its bargaining power with those that said they opposed the G-1. Zoning seems to be an important issue for many on City Council, and the Judiciary Committee has promised a Zoning Task Force to lead the way in zoning changes. This is a great start as we move towards a comprehensive zoning plan for the city.
It was an exciting week of Council and Committee meetings. Action was taken on the G-1, while intense discussions were had about fluoridation and CVB funding. I am eagerly awaiting next Thursday’s Council budget workshop to see what information is presented and how discussions go. If you are passionate about Council pursuing a certain revenue source, I hope you will come and make your voice heard.
An addendum to my fluoride article…