Here is my first podcast, an update on the budget situation for the City of Wilmington. The audio isn’t great, but I am learning!
Author: Tyler Williams
It’s Time for Wilmington to Fluoridate its Water
A common hoax that often manifests itself as a pop psychology “experiment” on fear, gullibility, and a lack of scientific literacy involves the chemical dihydrogen monoxide. Hoax victims are often warned of the dangers of this very common chemical: it is a main component of acid rain;can be dangerous in gaseous, liquid, and solid form; it contributes to erosion and rusting; and it is often found in excised tumors from cancer patients. Despite these dangers, the hoax warns, we all ingest or come into contact with this chemical every day. It is then revealed that dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water.
I bring this point up to illustrate an issue that has been happening in the fluoride debate across the country. Anti-fluoride advocates prey on the fears that many people have of “unnatural” chemicals in what we consume. Instead of focusing on legitimate science, these advocates will often cherry-pick certain studies (there is one in particular that I will focus on below) in order to show that fluoride is dangerous. I will agree on one point with these advocates-fluoride, at certain high levels, definitely has negative health benefits. However, an overview of the scientific literature clearly shows that fluoride in a water system can have positive health benefits, especially in places where people lack access to proper dental care.
What professional organizations say…
American Association of Pediatrics–“Water fluoridation continues to be one of the most important tools in our toolbox to prevent tooth decay in children and adults.” Support the US Department of Health and Human Services recommendation of 0.7mg/L to help with dental caries while limiting the risk of dental fluorosis.
Centers for Disease Control–The Centers for Disease Control named water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 21st century. The CDC has statements on the science of fluoridation as well as the economic impact of water fluoridation on communities.
American Dental Association–The ADA quotes scientific research that water fluoridation holds greatest promise in preventing childhood dental caries in its recommendation that communities pursue water fluoridation.
US Department of Health and Human Services–The US Department of Public Health recommends fluoridation to the 0.7mg/L level, which it recently changed from 0.7-1.2mg/L. They say that even though there has been an increase in availability of fluoride in dental products, they do still recommend that communities fluoridate their water to that level (which is also recommended to decrease risk of dental fluorosis).
The recent study that anti-fluoride advocates quote, and why you don’t need to worry about it…
In 2012, Harvard scientists wrote an article entitled “Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Published in a well-regarded journal, the article gained popularity thanks to a write-up on the Huffington Post (which has a strained relationship with good science) by Dr. Joseph Mercola (a favorite target of legitimate science writers and skeptics).
The article is an analysis of studies done mostly in rural mining communities in China. This is one of many problems from the article, and here are some others that I have gleaned from a variety of scientists who have written in response to the study:
- The studies examined looked at places with significant naturally occurring fluoride levels, higher than when it is put into the water supply
- The authors did not have complete information on the studies, so they were not replicable
- The studies did not have much in the way of compounding variables, i.e. education
The authors of the Harvard study itself admit to many of the flaws of the study, including that many of the studies they looked at were flawed and that their meta-analysis brought questions to light, but did not necessarily provide specific answers beyond saying that high levels of fluoride were potentially hazardous to neurological development. Unfortunately, many of the anti-fluoridation advocates were duped by people like Dr. Mercola, who was given a loudspeaker by the Huffington Post where he chose to further his alternative medicine agenda instead of writing an objective article about what the study said and its limitations.
A brief history water fluoridation in Wilmington…
In 1969, the State of Ohio passed a law requiring fluoridation of water supplies for municipalities of 5,000 people or more. In 1970, thirty communities (including Wilmington) voted to exempt themselves from this law. Currently, Wilmington is joined by twenty-one other communities in the state of Ohio in not fluoridating its water.
Since then, the issue has come up a few other times in Wilmington. In 1986, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story about the debate in council. Council members at the time appeared to favor it, but in the debate various illnesses and developmental issues were (wrongly) linked to fluoride treatment. David Hockaday, a city council member at the time who is still fighting against fluoride, was quoted as saying he had textbooks and research to look at the downside of water fluoridation. As anyone reading this knows, nothing ended up happening at the time regarding water fluoridation.
The current plan and the current debate…
The current plan, according to Water Committee Chairperson Kelsey Swindler, has been developed with the recommendations from the US Depatment of Public Health and requirements from the Ohio Revised Code. The goal is to have the lowest effective fluoridation, recommended by the US Department of Public Health while still following Ohio law, which requires that communities fluoridate their water to 0.8mg/L. According to Swindler, City Water Superintendent Jerry Rowlands has estimated startup costs to be around $29,000. However, from grant money available from the Ohio Department of Health Oral Health Project, the city would likely be able to cover much of the start up money.
The current debate has been much quieter, potentially because there is so much more evidence out there that supports water fluoridation. Mr. Hockaday has continued some of his arguments from years ago, although less vociferously. There will inevitably be some out there who appeal to fear about chemicals in the water, which is an appeal to nature that is not backed up by good science.
Now is the time to fluoridate our water. We have seen nearly one hundred years of science, almost all of it supporting fluoridation. The reports that haven’t have mostly warned about fluoridation in large quantities, which thanks to current technology can be controlled. As a city, we must encourage our city council members to ignore the clamoring of those loudly appealing to fears about the government trying to force chemicals into our bodies. We must help protect our most vulnerable children and adults, those that do not have access to appropriate care from damaging and harmful dental caries. It is time for Wilmington to join countless other communities who have worked to better public health and move forward with a community fluoridation plan.
Code Enforcement an Issue Throughout Wilmington
Recently, a local rental property was featured in a story on WKRC in Cincinnati (click here to read). Some of the article came to no surprise to many in Wilmington. Those who live in and have been around the city, even on some of the main streets, have certainly noticed the deterioration of many local rental properties. One issue that struck me was the lack of enforcment. If WKRC could talk to the landlord, then why couldn’t the city get him to show up for court? I decided to further investigate John Blake (the landlord mentioned in the story) and a few other local landlords and their properties in Wilmington. Here is what I found, and how I think the city can improve their code enforcement in the future…
John Blake and his wife Sarah Hapner are listed as the owner of several properties besides the one discussed in the article. Here are a few pictures of those properties
As you can see, these properties are an eyesore. Not only that, they violate several pieces of building code in the Wilmington Municipal Code, including (emphasis mine):
1709.03 (b) Protective Treatment. All exterior surfaces, including but not limited to, doors, door and window frames, cornices, porches and trim, shall be maintained in good condition. Exterior wood surfaces, other than decay-resistant woods, shall be protected from the elements and decay by painting or other protective covering or treatment. Peeling, flaking and chipped paint shall be eliminated and surfaces repainted. All siding and masonry joints as well as those between the building envelope and the perimeter of windows, doors, and skylights shall be maintained weather resistant and water tight.
- 1709.03 (f) Exterior Walls. All exterior walls shall be free from holes, breaks, loose or rotting materials; and maintained weatherproof and properly surface coated where required to prevent deterioration.
Unfortunately, these are not the only rental properties that are suffering due to a lack of code enforcement. There are two more examples that I have noticed (as have many Wilmington residents). The first two pictures are from one property on Wood St., and actually belongs to Kathryn Hapner. She is a former Wilmington Law Director and sister of Sarah Hapner, mentioned above. The second property shown is owned by Renaissance Men Properties, which is listed as an LLC with Alan Ledford and Grant Peelle as principals.
Again, we see many code violations in both places. Ms. Hapner was law director and is still a practicing lawyer, so one would assume that she is aware of the law. In the second case, which is an unrepaired roof after a fire, we can see the signs of negligent property owners dragging their feet, which have allowed parts of the building to end up almost on the Luther Warren Peace Path. This was not a recent fire by any standards and has a negative effect on the aesthetics of the trail.
I pursued this story because it is an important issue for Wilmington to consider. We should be sad to see our city on regional news for a lack of code enforcement by the city, and it is clear that Mr. Blake is not the only one. We have many local landlords that do not keep their buildings up to code, and this is something we must address as a community.
What can be done?
At the last City Council Judicial Committee meeting, Wilmington City Service and Safety Director Brian Shidaker said that there is no money allocated in the budget for code enforcement. Therefore, the only time issues like this are investigated is through a citizen’s complaint, and then only by the police department. This process often causes the ire of city residents, as they feel frustrated when their pleas for enforcement go unresolved. In the case mentioned at the beginning of this post, that led to a resident going to a Cincinnati news organization for answers.
There can be a solution, but it will have to involve city and county government working together. It is undeniable that blighted properties could lead to potential property tax losses for the county. If we continue down a road of allowing owners to not care for properties, it will likely become more difficult for homeowners to find potential customers, thus leading to a drop in prices. Additionally, many of these homes pose a health and safety risk to residents. Broken windows leading to unstable home temperatures and allowing weather in, mold, poor bathroom conditions, and issues with parts of buildings or retention walls coming on to public property could present real health and safety issues.
So, I believe that the county needs to step in and use some of the money from the sale of Clinton Memorial Hospital to work with the City of Wilmington (and other municipalities in the county, if necessary) to enforce building codes. Much of the money is earmarked for health and safety, which safe and sanitary living conditions falls under. Additionally, as I pointed out, Clinton County has a vested financial interest in keeping our neighborhoods clean, safe, and attractive for potential homebuyers. This is something we, as a community, should get behind in order to improve the quality of life for everyone.
Clinton County Election Review
A quick review of the 2016 Primary Election Results for Clinton County
County Commissioner-Open Seat
Winner: Brenda Woods
Mrs. Woods ended up winning with almost one-third of the vote, with Mike McCarty and Terry Habermehl finishing second and third, respectively. Woods ran an impressive campaign, with well-designed signage and campaign literature. Additionally, she received broad support from community leaders, including current Commissioner Mike Curry and President of Wilmington City Council Randy Riley. Woods performed well in precincts throughout the county, including some in areas that figured to be strongholds for other candidates. She will bring years of experience in both county and city government to her new post.
County Commissioner-Kerry Steed’s seat
Winner: Kerry Steed, Incumbent
Steed won a very close race with Fife. Steed ran a strong campaign with good social media presence and advertising. Fife kept this race close, despite an apparent lack of campaigning beyond his statements to the Wilmington News Journal and his participation in the candidate forums. Steed will have to get by Dean Feldmeyer in the General Election, where he will need to answer questions about transparency with the usage of the hospital money.
Republican Presidential Primary
CC Winner: Trump
Ohio Winner: Kasich
Neither result is really surprising. Trump was strong in a place that has seen difficult financial times and is overwhelmingly white, doing particularly well outside of the city of Wilmington. Kasich did take the state, however, slowing the apparent Trump juggernaut.
Democratic Presidential Primary
CC Winner: Sanders
Ohio Winner: Clinton
Clinton winning Ohio after her loss in Michigan wasn’t a surprise, but it was certainly a disappointment to those who still think Bernie Sanders has a chance of winning the Democratic Primary. Sanders winning Clinton County, however, was interesting to me at first glance. I do wonder if it has to do with the strong pacifist Quaker community here and Mr. Sanders’ history of strongly pacifist rhetoric. Either way, Ohio was part of a fantastic night for Clinton, and it would be a shock for her to not get the nomination at this point.
2016 Primary Preview for Clinton County
With the Ohio primary elections quickly approaching, here is a quick preview of some select races that have been closely followed in Clinton County.
County Commissioner-Open Seat
Running: Greg Grove, Terry Habermehl, Scott Holmer, Mike McCarty, and Brenda Woods
This race has been closely followed by many in the county, in part because of the number of people running and their ties across the county. All five candidates have been pushing hard throughout the county and attempting to separate their message from the message of their competitors. Driving through the county, you can see signs for all five candidates everywhere. I believe that there will be a geographic slant to this race, with certain candidates winning areas where they either live or work due to name recognition. Many are championing Mrs. Woods and Mr. Habermehl for their experience in government, while the others have been touted for their records in business or elsewhere. This race will likely come down to who voters believe has the best plans for the two main issues that have defined this race: the sales tax rolloff and the “hospital money.”
County Commissioner-Kerry Steed’s seat
Running: James Fife and Kerry Steed
Support for these two men has been fairly split. Steed is running heavily off of his experience as a commissioner, saying that he stuck to his campaign promises from the 2012 election. Mr. Fife has said that he will bring his experience working for a state agency (ODOT) as well as his experience as a Union Township Trustee to work on cost-saving measures. It appears that this race will be very close on election day, much like the other race.
Republican Presidential Primary
Running: John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald J. Trump
In what has quickly devolved into a race that some speculate may drastically change the GOP, four candidates have stayed in until Ohio (from over a dozen). Kasich, the current governor of Ohio, is certainly the biggest challenger to Trump’s success. He is currently polling ahead of or tied with Trump in Ohio, perhaps in part to Mr. Rubio’s campaign encouraging voters to support Kasich as the best chance to stop Trump in this winner-take-all state.
Clinton County’s demographics point to Trump potentially taking the county because of the heavy influence of “blue-collar” jobs and large population of Evangelical Christians. Kasich’s appearances in Wilmington should help him, and his balancing of the budget in Ohio (albeit controversially) will appeal to the pragmatic side of Clinton County voters. The other candidates running will certainly have their supporters in Clinton County, but it is almost certainly a race between Kasich and Trump.
Democratic Presidential Primary
Running: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
The Democratic primary has had fewer candidates and fewer direct jabs between the candidate, but the debates have not been lacking in substance and the campaign speeches have still been passionate. So what does this mean for Ohio and Clinton County? Mrs. Clinton is leading Sanders in polling, leading anywhere from single digits through twenty-five points. Sanders could have a decent showing in the county due to his strength among working-class, white voters (with whom Mrs. Clinton did very well in 2008). This race is difficult to predict for the county, due to many Democrats choosing instead to vote in the Republican primary because of the commissioner’s race.
Make sure to get out and vote on Tuesday, no matter what party. For information about where you should vote (and to make sure you are registered), check out the Clinton County Board of Elections website.
Conversation with the Candidate-Terry Habermehl
A couple of days ago, I sat down with current County Auditor and commissioner candidate Terry Habermehl for a conversation about the race and his ideas for Clinton County. Mr. Habermehl is running against Scott Holmer, Brenda Woods, Mike McCarty, and Greg Grove in the Republican Primary.
On the senior services levy…
After the forum at the senior center, senior-specific issues have been on the candidates mind. Mr. Habermehl, having just come off of a talk at the senior center, was no different. Habermehl countered some of the information that has been discussed about the contract with the Council on Aging. While some have talked about the amount of money spent on administration of the levy that is paid to the CoA, he has said that their administrative costs may well be lower than if the county tried to administer the grant themselves. He said that when he first came on as county auditor a few years ago, there were discussions between Job and Family Services and the county about the grant being locally administered(Community Action had also inquired about this). According to Habermehl, they decided that there would be too many new positions that would need to be created in order to fulfill the expertise that would be needed to administer such a levy.
However, Habermehl did say that there were some things he would like to see done regarding the levy. He said that there is not enough input from seniors right now that is shared with the Council on Aging, which could include independent surveys. Additionally, he said that he would like to keep the administration local if it were a feasible option, which would need to be researched more.
On the 0.5% sales tax rolloff
Habermehl said that he is cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a sales tax rolloff. He believes that the rolloff should happen because it was passed as a temporary tax to begin with, and from the data from the last few years it would be fiscally acceptable. Mr. Habermehl added that the county has actually seen a rise in sales tax revenue over the last few years, with each of the last 3 years showing an increase from the previous year. According to Habermehl, as commissioner, his focus would be to continually explore long-term reports for revenue and expenditures to work to avoid re-adding the sales tax.
On moving from auditor to commissioner…
One of the questions I had for Mr. Habermehl was what inspired him to run for commissioner after spending the last several years as auditor. He said that he desires to work more closely with the people of Clinton County, which is not afforded to him as often in his role as auditor. He added that as auditor his role is providing information, but that in the commissioner’s role he could help people solve problems.
On the “hospital money”…
As with every candidate, the money from the sale of Clinton Memorial Hospital is an important consideration for Habermehl in the campaign. In his opinion, long-term planning is the most vital piece for using that money. He believes that money should be spent on infrastructure where possible, especially where it increases productivity in county offices and helps save money. With much of the rest of rest of the money, Mr. Habermehl believes that a legacy fund through the Clinton County Foundation should award grants with the interest earned on the money.
On efficiency in county government…
One of Habermehl’s passions for county government is increasing efficiency and collective action among the individual departments in the county. One of his interests is increasing the information technology infrastructure of the county government, which he claims is inadequate right now. There is currently no full-time IT person for the county, and most individual departments are responsible for their technology needs. Habermehl believes that this is an area where the government could be more efficient and save money, because departments would be purchasing items and services together rather than separately and could therefore increase their bargaining power.
On the possibility of a community center…
Mr. Habermehl said that one question that is not answered in specifics is “what is the definition of a community center?” He stated that this needs to be answered before anyone moves forward with it, because the services it provides will affect the support of it. One thing Habermehl said he may explore is the possibility of putting it to a vote, perhaps with the additional piece of a levy for operating costs. The operating costs, he said, were his biggest concerns in the long run.
This was another interesting conversation with a commissioner candidate. Thank you for reading, and I hope to talk to more candidates before the primary on March 15th.
EDITORIAL: The Time for Action is Now in Wilmington City Council
As I wrote last Monday, Wilmington is experiencing serious issues with it’s budget situation. The city budget for 2016 showed a deficit of $1.3 million, and the agreement between council seemed to be that they needed to act soon. This, after a November city council meeting where council said that they would continue the discussion and that they recognized how quickly it needed to happen.
We are now at the beginning of March. Today, March 2nd, the Finance Committee of council had just their second meeting of the year from my understanding. I decided to go, to see if the members of the Finance Committee were going to follow through with their promise to consider options.
The budget discussion started out with Mayor John Stanforth saying that he would be putting a plan for cuts to balance the budget. He then asked for permission from Auditor David Hollingsworth to work with Deputy Auditor Mary Kay Vance on budget issues. I am not sure why this conversation hasn’t happened yet, but Hollingsworth said that was fine, as he would not be available much until after tax season. Stanforth went on to say that the city was broke, and Hollingsworth agreed.
Councilwoman Kelsey Swindler subsequently brought the issue of putting a tax on the ballot–the same discussion that council was having last year, but that nobody has discussed this year. Finance Committee Chair Mark McKay said that he wanted to give the mayor time to show how the cuts would look before they moved on the tax issue. Swindler responded that these needed to be in motion at the same time. McKay subsequently said that he needs more info, like a public forum where the public could decide whether council should put forth a property tax levy or an earnings tax on the ballot. I immediately posed the question, “Isn’t the tax the public forum?” Councilwoman Milburn then said she wanted to learn more about the numbers for each tax. Swindler and McKay both said that they were leaning towards an earnings tax, partially because they believe it to be more fair. Mr. McKay eventually added that he has heard some people saying it is time to put it on the ballot. The committee asked Clerk of Council Marian Miller to provide them with estimated revenue from the potential taxes for discussion at their next meeting.
During the meeting, Councilman McKay continued to show that he is not willing to make the tough decisions when it counts. He was perfectly willing to allow the tax to be debated in public before the committee and/or council moved forward on it. As the meeting went on, he backed off several times as soon as he was challenged. Mrs. Milburn ran on a no tax increase platform, so it is difficult to tell how she truly feels about the tax increase. She seems to have decided it is acceptable to put the tax to voters.
I left the meeting wondering-if Mr. McKay and Mrs. Milburn had not been questioned on their reluctance to put a tax increase on the ballot, what would have been accomplished? Would we all be waiting for the mayor’s office to come up with potential budget cuts so the committee can pour over them? Time is of the essence on an issue like this. It would be a great disappointment if council missed a chance to get it on the November ballot because of feet-dragging. At the end of the meeting, Mr. McKay said that “we’ll try to keep Kelsey happy.” Hopefully, this is not the only impetus for action in the future.
Conversation with the Candidate-Dean Feldmeyer
In my second conversation with a commissioner’s candidate, I sat down with Dean Feldmeyer to talk about his campaign. Mr. Feldmeyer is the Senior Pastor at the Wilmington United Methodist Church. He is the only Democrat running for County Commissioner, and will face the winner of the Steed/Fife primary in the General Election. Here is a synopsis of our conversation:
On county services:
Mr. Feldmeyer said that he believes county services mostly fall into two categories: protecting and enabling citizens. In the first category, he includes infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and emergency services. He stated that in his he is also concerned with the amount of area the Sheriff’s office has to cover with the manpower they currently have and that we need to be assured that they can cover it. Dean was also adamant about protecting Caesar’s Creek Lake, the main source of water for the county. He proposed a study of the areas up to one mile from the lake to assure there were not any sources of contaminants for the lake for the foreseeable future.
As far as the duty of county services to enable residents, Mr. Feldmeyer placed an emphasis on providing health services for the people of Clinton County. Included in this is increasing funding for county trails and parks and providing nutrition and exercise programs for residents, especially those who could not otherwise access them.
On the Council on Aging and seniors services in Clinton County…
This is undoubtedly a major (if not the major) issue of Mr. Feldmeyer’s campaign-his concerns about how the money is being spent from the senior services tax levy. His interest in working closely with seniors comes from his experience with Clinton County Community Action, where he is currently the Board Chairman. He has worked with the group for around ten years, he said, and has seen an increase in needs for services for the growing senior population in Clinton County.
This levy is administered by the Council on Aging, a group based in Cincinnati. Mr. Feldmeyer had an issue with this on its face, because “we are giving money to a group from outside the county so they can tell us how to spend our tax dollars.” During our conversation, Dean expressed three main concerns: the decrease in funds from the levy geared towards recreation and fitness, the carryover of the monies from year to year, and the amount going to administrative expenses. With the first concern, Mr. Feldmeyer believes that seniors need more access to recreation and fitness opportunities, not fewer, for both social and health reasons. His concerns about the carryover of money from the levy stems from his belief that there are immediate needs not being addressed, and that “the levy is not there to create a savings account” but to provide services. As far as the amount going to administrative expenses, Dean says this runs about $80,000 per year, which again stems from his initial hesitation to pay an organization from outside of the county to spend this money.
According to Mr. Feldmeyer, these issues can be resolved by the creation of a local agency to administer these funds. That way, there is a direct link between taxpayers, those receiving the services, and those administering the services. He claims that there is no current system for oversight, even though there is supposed to be a citizens’ advisory committee for the money to work with the Council on Aging.
Feldmeyer continued about his desire to see increased access to services for senior citizens by discussing the current issues with Meals on Wheels. Feldmeyer claims that dozens of seniors have been cut off from services due to changes in certain criteria for the program. He believes that many of the seniors who have been cut off from the services still truly need them. According to Mr. Feldmeyer, these issues could have been potentially avoided with more local controls of the levy money. Instead, Community Action has had to pick up some of the costs from the decrease in funding for the program in order to continue to provide services for those seniors.
On being a Democrat in Clinton County…
Considering the Republican dominance in Clinton County politics, I wanted to know how Dean planned to get voters to look past the fact that he is running as a Democrat. Mr. Feldmeyer said he was focused on targeting issues and values that are universal to all people, and he stated his belief that people will support him. His platform of governing with responsibility, strength, and compassion are what he sees as something a wide variety of people can get behind.
On the hospital money and a community center…
Mr. Feldmeyer views a community center as not a goal, but as a tool to achieve goals. During our conversation, he said that the question that needs to be answered is “how would a community center meet the needs of the community?” Before he would commit to something like the center, he said he wanted to truly see if it was something that would be fiscally responsible and a true community need. Dean pointed out that it could be worth doing an exploratory committee to assess the needs of Clinton County, as well as the short-term and long-term costs. He pointed out that a concern with the center would be operating costs, which it would be difficult to guarantee from the county’s standpoint over the long-term.
With the hospital money, Mr. Feldmeyer noted the importance of the restrictions on its use. His focus would be on health and safety of Clinton County residents. He wants to invest in recreation and fitness opportunities for all people, including parks. Additionally, Dean stated that he believed the county needs to find programs to support the efforts of Judge Rudduck’s drug court. He said that exploring the possibility of a drug and alcohol treatment center in Clinton County could provide a lot of support to residents struggling with those issues and allow their families to provide more support to them while in treatment.
Finally, Mr. Feldmeyer emphasized that we should be using the money we have to address current needs. While he supports the creation of an endowed fund, he said that the county needs to address immediate needs while looking at the long-term. He believes that there are many needs in relation to health and safety throughout Clinton County that the money could be used for right now.
As I did after my last conversation with the candidate, I invite all other candidates for a one-on-one conversation about the issues currently facing Clinton County. If you (or a candidate you know) is interested, please let me know!
Wilmington Hampered by Budget Shortfall, Inaction
At the Wilmington City Council meeting on January 7, 2016–the first council meeting of the year–City Auditor David Hollingsworth issued a dire warning to the council. If spending and revenue stay the same, the budget deficit for 2016 will be roughly $1.3 million. During 2015, the deficit was $925,000. All told, the city’s General Fund carryover for the end of 2016 could be down to $416,000 from $2.7 million at the end of 2014 (and closer to $8 million just a few years prior). Hollingsworth expressed concern about what the small carryover could do both for the flexibility of spending for the city and the bond rating for the city. He acknowledged that he is not able to make legislative decisions regarding the budget, but that he was counting on council to decide what happens.
And therein lies the problem…
So, what has city council done? After Mr. Hollingsworth’s presentation, Councilperson Mark McKay said that as the Finance committee chair, this was their number one issue on the agenda. One would assume that Finance committee, led by Mr. McKay, would be exploring all options. However, there is no evidence of this happening. In fact, as of the council meeting on February 18th, there had been only one finance committee meeting the entire year. Reports at City Council meetings from the Finance committee have concerned only the transferring of miscellaneous funds, not updates on the progress towards addressing the deficit as one might hope.
The time for action is now
The proverbial can representing the City of Wilmington’s fiscal issues has been kicked for many years, and we are now seeing the point where it can be kicked no more. The City has been able to use its significant carryover from just shy of a decade ago to allow itself to keep taxes the same while working to cut some expenditures. Unfortunately, this has gotten the city to the point where it is today. Only a few council members in recent history have been willing to stand up and say that there is an issue that must be fixed, and this council’s hand has finally been forced.
The lack of discussion on real issues at the last two council meetings has been disappointing and, at times, embarrassing. A likely non-existent lead problem, bridge issues at the cemetery, an extended reading of a social media post, and a long presentation by an outside group have taken up at least half of the previous two council meetings. I believe that council takes this seriously, but this type of inaction at council makes any decision that council makes difficult to defend.
The Possibility of a Tax Levy
So what can council do? It seems like cutting, cutting, and cutting more has not quite worked. It is difficult for a city to make too many more cuts when so much of its money is geared towards necessary services. I am sure there are small cuts that departments can make, but these could certainly hurt some of the basic services. One option that City Council and Mayor Stanforth need to consider is an increase in the city income tax. There may be no other way around it at this point. However, this will be an uphill battle for council. Unfortunately, some have made ill-advised pledges not to raise taxes. This levy will need support from the city to pass. And it needs to happen soon. If council does not bring this to the discussion soon, they run the risk of rushing it to the ballot, which has the effect of leading to a backlash from the public.
This budget issue will be a focus for The Wilmington Bulletin in the coming months. Council must act to be a bellwether in the fight to balance the budget and help ensure Wilmington’s fiscal stability. If they don’t, it is residents of the city that will likely feel the consequences.
A Conversation with Kerry Steed
This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of conversations with candidates in the commissioner’s race. I am inviting all candidates to sit down for a conversation to expand on their expressed views in both forums.
I sat down with Kerry Steed, current Clinton County Commissioner running for re-election in the Republican Primary against James Fife. We discussed a variety of topics. I will summarize our conversations on each topic.
On using hospital money for a community center:
This was one topic that has been brought up by a variety of residents of the county since the YMCA financial situation became obviously dire several years ago.When I asked Kerry about the possibility of building a community center locally, he acknowledged that it was something that the commissioners had considered. Steed said the main problem with this idea is that “building the center is the easy part, but maintaining operations is where you run into trouble.” He stated that this is what they have been told during discussions with governmental organizations about their centers. He cited the YMCA building repair costs as an example of a potential long-term issue with regards to costs.
On the creation of an endowed fund for the remainder of the hospital money:
For anyone that has read the Wilmington News Journal, the creation of an endowed fund is something that has been discussed for the hospital money. Steed emphasized his belief that an endowed fund is the best way to ensure that the money is safeguarded for the long term. Under Steed’s estimation, putting the $3 million alone into an endowed fund would lead to somewhere between $150,000 and $280,000 available for a committee to give out each year.When I asked Mr. Steed about using the money immediately, he said that any large-scale project would require extensive operating fees, which could potentially negate positive effects from the money in the long-term if those were not viable.
A little later on in our conversation, I questioned Kerry about the apparent lack of action related to the $3 million endowment fund. I compared it to the movie Groundhog Day, where I felt like I was reading the exact same report about every commissioners’ meeting since the beginning of the year, especially regarding the need for more legal counsel in regards to who can sit on a board to give out the money. Mr. Steed explained that there were a variety of legal issues surrounding the investment of the money and who had to be in control of it. Apparently, this had to do with how the money could be invested from a governmental organization.
On the 0.5% sales tax rolloff:
After talking about the investments from the “hospital money,” Kerry and I turned our attention to the oft-discussed potential 0.5% sales tax rolloff. As I had mentioned about the commissioner’s forum, all of the candidates said that they supported lower taxes in principle, but a couple (Mr. Fife being one) reiterated that it was something they needed to examine how it fits into Clinton County’s fiscal future. When I asked Mr. Steed about it, he said that it is something he has been looking at for a few years, and is still looking into. Kerry stated that he views the .5% tax as a “tool to balance the budget.” He also said that he tries to abide by statements by the Ohio Tax Commissioner encouraging local governments to “tax what you need and spend what you tax.” For Steed, this means that governments should not be in the business of collecting tax revenues for the future as much as they should focused on providing services to taxpayers, but that they should not be imposing taxes without a need.
Another important part that I was curious about (this will be covered in an upcoming post) was whether he was worried that allowing the tax to roll off would lead to a situation like the City of Wilmington is currently in, with years of declining revenues and a sizable budget deficit. Here, Steed was bullish on Clinton County’s future, emphasizing that revenues are going up as more businesses are moving in. This, Steed said, has been a factor in the discussions regarding the sales tax rolloff.
On the future of Clinton County:
As I previously stated, Steed was very bullish about the future of Clinton County. Steed told me that according to his figures, Clinton County has 400 jobs waiting to be filled by qualified candidates. He said that we need to continue discussing plans for workforce development so we can match workers with appropriate skills to jobs. In addition, he said that he wanted to see more partnerships like the partnership between Laurel Oaks and AMES with their aircraft maintenance program.Steed was also adamant that, as a county, we have to start looking forward towards attracting more people who work here to live here too. He looks to the construction area as a place that can be a major part of the focus on the future, building spec homes so that when people decide to take a job in Clinton County, they could move her right away as well.
Overall, I thought it was an enlightening conversation with Mr. Steed. I was able to get more of a perspective on local issues and what the commissioners are doing to try to plan for the future. In the future, I believe that the commissioners must do a better job in communicating some decisions. Obviously, this is not all their fault, but it seems that they could avoid criticisms about their lack of long term planning or their handling of the hospital money with more communication with the public.
I hope that more candidates and/or local politicians are willing to sit down for a conversation. We are at a crossroads locally, and it is vital to have an informed electorate. The invitation is open to all candidates-I would be happy to hear from you!