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MUNROE FALLS -- In the wake of city voters approving nearly $600,000 in additional annual tax revenue May 2, Mayor James Armstrong said he is feeling much happier about planning for the future.
"We're in a much better position today than we were yesterday," Armstrong told the Stow Sentry May 3.
Armstrong said the city will not start seeing any new funding coming in from an income tax increase and a police levy until at least Jan. 1, 2018, when they go into effect, but city officials want to get a jump start on planning next year's budget, looking at what the priorities are and what can be afforded.
"I'm trying not to be overly enthusiastic and start spending money right now," he said. "It's a deliberative process that we have to go through."
Police Chief Jerry Hughes, who was looking at the possible eventual shutdown of his department without passage of the police levy, said, "I'm extremely happy to see the levy passed and I can focus on some items I'd like to get completed," including replacing police cars and increasing full-time staffing.
"I'm really thrilled that the citizens stepped up to support this city and I think they spoke volumes about what they want and I just plan to live up to it," said Hughes.
According to final but unofficial results from the Summit County Board of Elections, Issue 4, an increase in the city's income tax rate from 2 percent to 2.25 percent, received 566 votes (62.40 percent) for and 341 votes (37.60 percent) against. Issue 5, a 2.8-mill, five-year police levy, had almost identical numbers, with 576 votes (63.58 percent) in favor and 330 votes (36.42 percent) against.
Voter turnout was 24.64 percent of the 3,681 registered voters in Munroe Falls. Issue 4 won in all six precincts while Issue 5 won in five. It lost by two votes -- 79 for and 81 against -- in Ward 1's Precinct 1, according to results.
City officials estimate the income tax increase will raise about $276,000 annually in additional revenue. Because of the city's 100 percent income tax credit, Munroe Falls residents paying a local tax of 2.25 percent or more to another community that they work in would not see a tax increase while those paying a rate of less than 2.25 percent to another community would pay the difference to Munroe Falls between the two tax rates.
Issue 5, the police levy to pay for such police-related expenses as salaries, vehicle and equipment purchases and maintenance and building maintenance costs, is projected to raise about $300,000 annually and would cost homeowners a little under $100 annually per $100,000 in market value.
Armstrong told the Stow Sentry on election night. "I always believed that if the citizens of Munroe Falls knew the critical financial situation of the city they would support their community and they did."
While most City Council members expressed support for both issues, Councilor Mike Barnes has said he was only partially supportive.
"I'm fine with [the results]," Barnes said May 4. "You know, 25 percent of the voters decided for the rest. I'm disappointed with the turnout, but I'm not at all unhappy with the results. I certainly supported the police levy. The city definitely needs money. I just didn't think the income tax was the right way to do it."
Voters rejected both issues on the general election ballot in November. They approved a 2-mill, 10-year capital improvements levy, projected to raise about $214,000 annually specifically for road maintenance.
City has multiple needs
City officials have said the police levy and the income tax increase are both needed to relieve pressure on the city's general fund, which has been running deficits in recent years. The fund's cash reserves were nearly $2 million at the end of 2014, were down to about $1.36 million at the end of 2016 and are projected to be about $1.03 million at the end of this year.
In April, Armstrong said both tax issues were important and if voters had continued to reject the police levy, it would have meant eventually shuttering the department and contracting out policing, which would have likely meant reduced services.
"The important part is we know we're not going to live off savings in the future," he said May 3.
One worry that has been alleviated, he said, is how to pay the roughly $150,000 cost that the state is mandating the city spend to replace all of its portable police and fire department radios for units with upgraded technology.
Fire Chief Lee Chafin has told City Council that the city had applied for two grants, one from the Ohio Development Service Agency to pay for all of the radios and the other a Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters grant, which would provide $98,000 for the fire department radios, with the city required to pay a little under $5,000.
But Chafin said that Summit County, together with Stow, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge, which are in talks to form a combined dispatch center, received a $500,000 Ohio DSA grant in March toward the purchase of a computer-aided dispatch system. Chafin said this pretty much killed the city's chances of receiving the DSA grant it applied for.
Armstrong said the city will consider financing the costs or will just take the money it needs out of the cash reserves for the radios.
Armstrong said another concern is police cars. The department has one with over 110,000 miles on it that should have been replaced in 2016, but was not. It is in the budget to be replaced this year, but the rest of the department's fleet is aging as well, with one other car also at over 110,000 miles.
He said there are no plans to buy more than one car, which Hughes said costs more than $50,000 when fully equipped. "If there is a way of saving money in the future by purchasing it today, I'll do it," he said.
Police staffing is another matter. At one time, the department had nine full-time officers, but is now down to six including the chief and the two sergeants. Hughes said the shortage of full-time officers forces the department to rely more on part-time officers, making the roster less stable as part-time officers are more likely to leave for full-time jobs elsewhere.
"We no more than get them trained when we lose them and you can't blame them -- they're working part time and not getting benefits. If they're offered a full-time position with benefits, they're naturally going to leave," said Hughes.
He added full-time officers who stick around are "more invested in the community and know more about it."
Armstrong said building up the general fund reserves is also important. "The idea that we can go ahead and actually properly budget and govern the city and finance the city based on incoming revenues instead of having to tap into essentially a rainy day fund is so important because it was only a matter of a few years before there would be no rainy day fund."
"It's just a big sense of relief."
Editor's note: Senior Editor Marsha McKenna contributed to this story.