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Friday, March 27, 2015

Tarnation and Frustration: I'm Voting "No" On City Tax Increase Ballot

Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen has stated that Portsmouth did not ask for enough money during the last tax increase request. Allen told those at the Scioto County Health Coalition meeting about the dire straits the city will be in if the proposed city income tax increase does not pass in November.

Manager Allen explained ...

"I can tell you today that, contractually, by law, through the (City) Charter, I cannot pay everybody after 2015. If this doesn’t pass there’s going to have to be service cuts and that will have a negative effect on the community. I tell people, you couldn’t imagine what I’m going to have to cut.

And people talk about, back in the eighties - and I wasn’t here - but there were days that the cemetery didn’t get mowed at all and the grass was three feet high. I don’t know if that’s true but I can tell you that’s where we’re headed.

We’re headed to basically abandoning the parks and not mowing them. Right now we don’t have any parks people. The Streets Department gets pulled off the streets and has to go mow.”

Then, Allen told those in attendance about these major concerns:

* Street department workers need to be fixing the streets instead of being pulled off that work to do things like mowing parks.
* The police department and fire department are a big chunk of the budget as a “necessary evil.” 60 percent of the General Fund budget is police and fire.
* At the present time, the police aren't even doing routine patrols, but instead only responding.
* There is even talk about Portsmouth converting to a volunteer fire department that would drive businesses out of town because of increased insurance costs related to a volunteer program.

(Frank Lewis. "Allen Discusses City's Financial Woes."
Portsmouth Daily Times. March 16, 2015)

I, for one, am disgusted with city finances and threats of poor services. Let me relate the latest in my dealings with the city.

I needed two runs of guttering done, complete with leaf guards. Without telling you details about my last experience on the roof and on ladders, which ended up with me falling and paying hospital bills, I hired a very respectable local gutter company to do the work. I am just too old and too unstable to chance the injury. The company's rates were reasonable, and they were assured contractors licensed in the City of Portsmouth. The repairmen were really nice people that I would highly recommend.

The day before the job, the owner called me to request I go to the Engineer's Office in Portsmouth to acquire a building permit for the small job. I questioned why we needed a permit for such a minor improvement, and he told me that the city was checking all home improvement for permits -- even for simple jobs like installing a storm door.

Of course, I told the owner it wasn't his fault that the city required the permit, so I told him I would comply. I jumped into my car and drove to the city building to purchase my building permit for hanging two gutters. I filled out the paper, complained a lot (of course), and paid $25.25 for my permit.

Now, I understand liability and regulations; however, the company has insurance. Yet, even though they were licensed, insured professionals, I had to pay the city for a building permit which they told me was basically for my own protection. I can imagine quite a bit of revenue must be coming into the Engineer's Office considering all the little projects I see people doing.

In my aggravation, I told the man at the Engineer's Office that he and I could get into my car and within 15 minutes, I could show him numerous dangerous properties in town that present a legitimate and present risk to innocent people. That would not include the old building on 2nd Street that recently fell down -- remember the one recently wherethe workers neither had a permit or an approved plan?

These dilapidated homes in town are owned by residents and local slum lords. Why weren't city officials policing these places and why weren't they making owners improve their real estate or be fined heavily for their neglect? After all, these repairs would increase property value and taxes because improvements to individual residences and crumbling businesses also contribute to raising the standard of neighborhood locations.

I also told him that if I had a major project at my home, I would certainly acquire a building permit without being advised to do so. But, this one hour project needed a permit? They said it did, so I donated the money to the city, and I expressed my disgust at caring enough to fix my home as a senior citizen on a fixed income, a person I believe definitely should get a break on licenses for home improvement.

And, I must say I felt as if I was preaching to the choir because the employee in the Engineer's office was very sympathetic and very interested in what I had to say. He was a nice man. We reached many general agreements in changes that needed to be made... after I paid my building permit money.

But, still ...

I made up my mind that day, considering the circumstances, I will vote "no" for the tax increase in November. The work permit regulation was the proverbial "straw that broke this camel's back."

Hell, I had just received my first speeding ticket in a speed trap on Coles Boulevard after living nearby for forty years. Why? The city had received a grant earmarked for catching speeders. Have you tried driving 25 MPH on Coles? Do it and find fingers, fists, and flowery profanity brushing up against your bumper. But now, I drive 25 and take the abuse.

And, let me give you other good reasons for voting "no."

The voters of the city of Portsmouth passed a 0.6 percent income tax increase in 2011, but the City Fathers drafted a resolution stating Allen's efforts have been insufficient to bring city finances in order, so the city is asking for this new income tax increase of 0.5 percent. No one seems to know exactly what "in order" entails. As a citizen, I feel cheated living in a town where bad comes to worse.

The Daily Times reported the resolution states the city’s general fund is expected to be in deficit for the foreseeable future without either significant cuts to services and numbers of employees or additional revenues.

Allen said. “We have done all we can, there is (are) no more areas to reduce except for laying people off or making employees pay more for their benefits.” Estimates say there are nearly 300 City employees and officials.

Do we need 300 employees?

The resolution states, “on average since 2009 yearly budget loses due to actions by the state legislature include $775,000 in Local Government  funds, $430,000 in Estate Taxes and $200,000 per year Personal Property Taxes for a total of $1,405,000 in total losses per year to the city budget.”

(Wayne Allen. "Resolution passes to ask for tax increase."
Portsmouth Daily Times. December 26, 2014)

What guarantees will the city make to us citizens that a new tax increase will generate enough money to prevent the need for increase after increase? I believe the answer is "none."

According to Census figures, the city has an estimated 2013 population of 20,430 a significant drop (9%) from the 23,532 residents here in 1990. Therefore, do cuts need to be made in "the necessary evils" of police and in fire protection to reflect the population loss?

According to data from city-data.com, Portsmouth has a rate of 1.74 full-time enforcement employees per 1,000 citizens as compared to a rate of 1.99 officers per 1,000 people as the average in the State of Ohio.

According to portsmouthoh.org, The Portsmouth Police Department consists of the Chief, two captains, four lieutenants, eight sergeants, 26 patrol officers, an administrative assistant, and three administrative clerks.The average full-time wage for police and protection officers here is $55,050.

Violent crime in Portsmouth is significantly higher than the national average (rating 338.1 in Portsmouth compared to a 223.2 U.S. figure). And, the property crime rate is astronomical in comparison with the U.S. average (1,072.6 in Portsmouth compared to a 276.4 U.S. figure). Are we getting our money's worth for the significant expense?

 Portsmouthoh.org states the fire Department currently includes 38 sworn officers and six emergency dispatchers. The average full-time wage there is $53,460 according to city-data.com. I have no idea if this is anywhere near an average ratio. 

Raising Taxes In a Poverty-Stricken Area

The Portsmouth, Ohio poverty rate of 29.4% is much higher than the Ohio 2013 rate of 16%. In Portsmouth, the median worker income is $16,667. This is incredibly lower than the national average of $29,701.

As of the last census, the Portsmouth, OH unemployment rate of 13.6% was much worse than the 7.3% Ohio average.

These are facts -- granted, regrettable as they may be but facts, none the less -- that show the big money for better services is simple not available. City government needs to serve, not choke the public that already suffers from poverty.
   

Guess what? Even with the poor economy and enormous poverty, in addition to the last tax increase in 2011, Portsmouth citizens have suffered many increases in their water and sewer bills during the last decade. According to the Times, here are recent Portsmouth water and sewer rate increases:
  • 2004 - Water 5.7% - Sewer 5.9%
  • 2005 - Water 5.6% - Sewer no increase
  • 2006 - Water 9.1% - Sewer no increase
  • 2007 - Water 3.4% - Sewer 3.5%
  • 2008 - Water 3.5% - Sewer 3.5%
  • 2009 - Water no increase - Sewer 3.0%
  • 2010 - Water 8.0% - Sewer 9.0%
  • 2012 - Water no increase - Sewer 9.0%
  • 2013 - Water 3.0% - Sewer 3.0%
 (Frank Lewis. "Portsmouth water and sewer rates increase."  
Portsmouth Daily Times. July 24, 2013)

I feel as if I should be drinking Perrier straight from the tap considering those water increases. And, I certainly hope my bathroom deposits are being handled with the utmost of care at those rates. Whether its coming into our homes -- like water -- or going out of our homes -- like waste, we are paying at both ends.

In order for me even to consider voting "for" another tax increase, I would have to see exactly where the money is going, how much of it is going where, how efficiently it is going to be spent, how the increase will improve conditions in which I live, and MOST OF ALL, how the increase will guarantee that I will not be asked for an additional monies for many, many years.

Satisfying my concerns would require a huge campaign by the City Fathers chocked with many specifics. I don't think the city is willing to comply as their recent records of snow removal, garbage removal, and park maintenance are lacking. Excuses and threats? "Cemetery grass three-feet tall?" Well, at least we could be proud of joining the environmental Green Movement.

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