Let’s keep Sidney moving forward

By Mike Barhorst
Contributing columnist

Sidney voters will have the opportunity to pass a one-half of one percent permanent income tax increase when they go to the polls on March 19. The permanent levy, expected to generate approximately $6.7 million in annual revenue, will replace the .15% five-year levy designated for street and bridge repair/replacement that expires in December. That levy currently generates approximately $1.8 million annually.

In addition to keeping streets paved and bridges repaired, the levy will provide enough revenue to add four additional firefighters/paramedics per shift, two additional police officers per shift, and funds to improve our parks. Yes, as some critics have pointed out, the funds will become a part of the General Fund, allocated each year in an annual budget approved by city councilmembers.

In fact, approximately 80% of the General Fund each year is allocated to public safety. Those funds include wages and benefits for police and fire personnel as well as the equipment they need to perform their duties.

Long ago in Sidney’s history, Fire Chief Henry Yost requested funding from city council to replace the department’s ladders. In their wisdom, council decided that the expenditure of funds was unnecessary. On May 12, 1906, one of the ladders was deployed at a house fire. The ladder broke, and Chief Yost fell to his death. In my long tenure, I have made it a point to guard against something like this ever happening again.

At the time of the Great Recession positions in both the police and fire departments were left vacant, decreasing the number of city employees through attrition Council simply feels that it is time to get both departments back to numbers that will allow both departments to function more efficiently.

I’ve been a bit perplexed by a couple of those who have publically opposed the tax increase. I thought the move to defund public safety was confined to places like Portland, San Francisco, New York and Chicago but much to my surprise, we have people thinking the same thing here.

With respect to the charge that councilmembers have not done a good job explaining what we are going to do with the extra revenue, I would suggest that the critics need to do their homework. The city’s budget is online and readily accessible twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Each month, financial reports are produced, reviewed by council, and they too, are online and readily available.

Every dime council expends is audited, and year after year, our finance officer and her staff receive high praise from the Ohio Auditor of State for their work. Recently, they were again awarded the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by the Government Finance Officers Association. Unlike many surrounding communities, we have not had a finding for recovery in decades.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase made popular by Mark Twain in describing the persuasive power of statistics to bolster weak arguments. I’m old enough not to have learned new math, but increasing the city income tax from 1.65% to 2.0% is not a 333% increase.

For those who have done their homework, you know that many of the surrounding communities (Centerville, Dayton, Fairborn, Huber Heights, Kettering, Miamisburg, Piqua, Springfield and Vandalia) increased their municipal income tax to 2% some time ago.

As has been carefully explained, the tax is an earned income tax. Those who are receiving retirement benefits will not pay the increased tax. Those who will pay the increased tax include the more than 11,700 people who come into town daily to work, drive on our streets, drive across our

bridges, visit our parks, call upon our police department when they have an accident and upon our fire department when they have a medical emergency.

Also paying the tax will be people who are working (despite their age), such as Committee Chair Bob Guillozet, who will pay the tax on his salary as a county commissioner (but not on his retirement benefits as a former firefighter or sheriff’s deputy), Committee Co-Chairs Steve Wagner and myself, both of whom still receive taxable compensation, will pay the tax on that compensation. We will not have to pay the tax on our retirement benefits or our investment income.

The fact is, many of the items necessary for the effective operation of the city have simply gone up in price faster than inflation. In 1990, the city of Sidney purchased a pumper for the fire department at $217,248. In 1997, we purchased a similar vehicle for $266,900. The pumper currently being bid is expected to cost $1.2M – without equipment. The earlier models came fully equipped.

The cost of resurfacing a city street with 1½ inches of asphalt is now $150,000 per lane mile. Sidney has 289 lane miles of streets. If we were to attempt to resurface all the streets in the same year, it would cost a staggering $43 million.

Occasionally a street will be so degraded that it will have to be entirely reconstructed. The most recent street that we reconstructed was Fielding Road. We will soon be reconstructing Campbell Road. That project will cost $3,000,000 per mile.

I could sight dozens of other examples but in the interest of your time and mine, will simply note that the city has about a dozen fewer employees now than prior to the Great Recession. Our employees continue to do more with less, despite the fact that the city has continued to grow.

Each budget cycle, each department submits requests for projects. Unlike the Federal Government, we cannot print money. As a result, projects for which we do not have the funds are “unfunded.” The list of unfunded projects has grown annually, and now exceeds $50 million! Voting “yes” on the tax levy will allow us to begin to “catch up” with some of those projects.

Voting “no” will simply put Sidney further behind, day after day. Now is the time to keep Sidney moving forward. It has taken longer than I imagined to get the momentum we now have. I don’t want to lose that momentum so many people have worked so hard to build. Thus, I would again encourage a “yes!” vote. Let’s keep Sidney moving forward!

The writer is a member of Sidney City Council.