- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
Springfield city leaders want to increase local income taxes to maintain services, fix roads and hire more police officers, but opponents believe it will make the city less attractive for prospective residents and businesses.
Residents will vote May 2 whether to raise the city’s income tax for 5½ years from 2 percent to 2.4 percent.
“We’re definitely at a crossroads here in Springfield,” City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said. “We either get the additional revenue to invest it back in the community or we’re going to see continued decline. We’re at a tipping point.”
If approved, the tax would generate an additional $6.7 million annually. For a worker making $30,000 a year, it would cost an additional $10 per month. That worker’s municipal taxes would increase from about $600 to $720 annually.
The city projects generating $38.4 million in general fund revenues this year. It also estimates spending about $39 million, leaving about a $600,000 deficit.
A similar proposal was rejected by 227 votes in November.
The city should lower its tax rate to encourage more people and businesses to move to Springfield, local attorney Dan Harkins said. He’s treasurer of Citizens for Responsible Springfield City Government, a group opposed to the tax increase, and previously ran unsuccessfully for city commission.
“We need to get people to live here,” he said. “All the tax increase will do is make us less competitive. Why live in Springfield? Where are the jobs?”
People choose to live in a community based on amenities and opportunities, Bodenmiller said. Columbus has a 2.5-percent income tax and a booming population, he said.
“They’re one of the highest-growth areas in the state,” Bodenmiller said. “There are all kinds of reasons for that, but some of them are because of the exciting opportunities people have.”
The increase will be placed on the ballot as Issue 1. The city will host the last of three financial forums at 10 a.m. Thursday at the City Hall Forum, 76 E. High St.
‘Not hard to see’
Last year, the Community Financial Advisory Committee, a group of local business and community leaders, and an independent auditor each analyzed the city’s finances. Both found the city is in need of additional revenue sources.
The city was also put on notice by the Ohio Auditor that it was headed toward fiscal emergency. Some of the indicators for that status include a dwindling of reserve dollars and a lack of revenue coming in to remain fiscally healthy.
Springfield collected $37.2 million in total general fund revenue last year, $2.6 million less than the $39.8 million it brought in before the Great Recession hit in 2007. The state has cut a total of $21.5 million funding to Springfield since 2007.
The city is expected to receive about $1.7 million in local government funds from the state this year, down from about $5.4 million in 2007.
“It’s not hard to see how we’re in this situation,” Bodenmiller said. “If we had not been good managers of money and made the cuts we’ve made all throughout the last 10 years, including what we’ve had to do in 2017, we would’ve been in fiscal emergency long ago.”
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The city currently has about 560 employees. Since 2007, the city has cut about 145 positions to reduce costs, he said.
About 80 percent of the city’s budget is made up of safety services, including police officers, firefighters, dispatchers and the municipal court. The city’s charter requires minimum staffing of 124 police officers and 127 firefighters — limiting its ability to reduce costs in those areas, he said.
Three people were laid off last year, Bodenmiller said, while another five lost jobs this year.
“Lots of people are pulling double duty or have absorbed other people’s work,” he said.
The same boat
The state cuts have put a damper on municipal operating budgets across the state, said Andy Bell, chairman of Citizens for a Stronger Springfield, the committee backing the tax increase.
Of the 247 cities in Ohio, there have been 184 municipal tax increases on the ballot since 2013, including 34 requests on last November’s ballot.
Six of the 20-most populated cities in Ohio asked voters for tax increases last year. They’re now relying on their own local tax base to provide services, Bell said.
The state income tax has been cut 25 percent over the past 10 years, Bell said — meaning residents will pay less taxes than they did a decade ago, even if the Springfield increase is approved.
The tax increase will only affect wage earners, he said, and not those who receive retirement benefits.
“It’s a great deal,” Bell said. “To me, it just makes common sense.”
The city’s poor infrastructure will keep businesses from locating in Springfield, he said, rather than a higher income tax rate
A better infrastructure will also give local economic development officials another tool to sell Springfield as a site for businesses, Bell said.
“We have to have the infrastructure to be successful as a city,” he said.
Streets, safety improvements
If the income tax increase is approved, most of the new money would replace the cuts to state funding and maintain current services, Bodenmiller said. It would allow the city to re-open both Fire Station No. 5 and the police substation on Johnny Lytle Avenue, both of which closed on Jan. 1 due to budget cuts.
On any given day, every available fire truck and ambulance in the city can be out at one time, Bodenmiller said.
“We’ve had that happen a couple of times (this year),” he said. “When that next call comes out, we don’t have anybody to send, so we have to get mutual aid for that.”
An additional $2 million would go toward a street improvement fund. Combined with other grant money, it will make a noticeable difference, Bodenmiller said. It also makes money available for neighborhood streets to be paved, which currently can’t be repaired with federal funding.
“It’s not going to fix every street in Springfield, but it’s a great start,” he said.
It will also reduce the likelihood of more cuts to the National Trail Parks and Recreation District and the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bodenmiller said.
The increase also would allow the city to update its aging police and fire fleet. The average age of the equipment at the fire division is about 15 years, he said. The city has bought used equipment in the past to reduce costs, he said.
“We take good care of it but it’s becoming in a state of disrepair that it becomes hard to fix it,” he said.
The income tax increase is temporary, the city manager said, and it can only be continued with another vote of the people. The city of Springfield can’t collect sales taxes and a similar property tax levy is unlikely, he said.
If the issue fails, the city will continue to cut costs, employees and services from every department and division in some form, Bodenmiller said.
“We can’t cut ourselves to prosperity,” he said. “You can’t make enough cuts to balance the budget and have a healthy and vibrant city.”
If approved, the tax increase also would be used to hire six additional police officers to combat the heroin epidemic and violent crime, Bodenmiller said.
“We can’t do more than we’re doing now from an enforcement standpoint,” he said. “We have to have additional manpower and services to do that.”
Nearly 500 drug overdoses have been reported in Clark County this year, the majority of which were in the city limits. The majority of the overdoses are caused by illicit fentanyl laced with other drugs, including heroin.
In order to curb the epidemic, the city must cut off the supply, Bodenmiller said, and the additional officers would target drug traffickers.
“We can’t do it with our current resources,” he said.
The epidemic also affects other people, Bodenmiller said, including those who have had their homes and cars broken into across town by addicts looking for money to buy drugs.
“While we’re able to catch some folks and make in-roads in that area, these six additional officers will be specifically geared at looking toward that issue,” Bodenmiller said. “It’s critical for our future.”
The city will still continue to look to consolidate services, he said, including a combined dispatch center.
“I’m excited about the future on several fronts, that being just one of them,” he said. “We have to be constantly cost-conscious as we move forward, we know that.”
A reason to live here?
The city is more interested in its own corporate self than the community it’s supposed to serve, Harkins said. By increasing the tax rate, he said it discourages people from moving to Springfield.
The city could eliminate the need for a tax hike by saving money through consolidating services with Clark County in several areas, Harkins said, including combined dispatch, merging the entrance to the municipal and common pleas courthouses, local building inspections departments and eliminating one of three municipal court judges.
The city of Springfield gives a 50 percent credit on its local income taxes to residents who live here but work and pay income taxes in other cities. Some cities, such as Columbus, give 100 percent credit.
“We punish people for living in Springfield and working elsewhere,” Harkins said.
The city could post billboards around Columbus encouraging people to move to Springfield where rent is cheaper, allowing for more discretionary income, he said.
“If we can’t give people jobs, we need to give them a reason to want to work and live here,” Harkins said.
The city’s core mission is to serve the public, Bodenmiller said, including many who put their lives on the line every day.
“We have an amazing group of employees who have dedicated their entire lives to serve the public,” Bodenmiller said.
As the city’s population has continued to decline, the number of people employed in Springfield has remained stagnant, Harkins said. In 2006, Springfield had nearly 570 employees, according to its recently released state audit. Last year, the city had about 560 employees — a 1 percent decrease.
At the same time, police calls declined from more than 64,500 in 2006 to 57,800 in 2015, according to the city’s most recent state audit, Harkins said. Criminal citations filed with the municipal court show a 41 percent decline since 2004, while traffic citations have declined 68 percent since 1997, he said.
The city is using scare tactics by saying it needs more money to fight the heroin epidemic when it will never be used for that purpose, he said. It’s a health problem that should be addressed by the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison Counties and the Clark County Combined Health District, Harkins said.
The statistics on the heroin epidemic are facts, Bodenmiller said, not scare tactics. Aggravated assaults are up 20 percent and motor vehicle thefts are up 56 percent over the past five years, Bodenmiller said.
“A lot of it comes back to the heroin epidemic,” he said. “There is a lot of violence related to drugs and a lot of theft related to supporting people’s drug habits. It’s affecting all areas of the city.”
This year, the issue has the support of both the Chamber of Greater Springfield and the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The chamber’s board endorsed the tax increase earlier this year. It stayed neutral on the issue last November.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Bodenmiller said. “It speaks well of the need for the issue.”
The city agreed to a performance audit, which the chamber helped paid for, chamber board President Jim Lagos said. The chamber has also had discussions about ways the city can improve performance and efficiency in the future, he said.
“Since they’re making that substantial effort, we thought it was wise to go ahead and endorse (the tax),” Lagos said.
The extra revenue will improve streets, which he said could improve economic development.
Harkins believes the city extorted the chamber when it discussed possibly eliminating about $400,000 in lodging tax funding from the visitors bureau after the tax increase failed last November. The money would instead be placed back into the city’s general fund rather promote local tourism.
“It’s a great example of how the city is more concerned about its own corporate being rather than the community it serves,” Harkins said.
Lagos said that’s not the case. The visitors bureau later decided to take a cut of $50,000 for the first six months of this year, he said.
“It was resolved before we (endorsed) anything,” Lagos said. “Absolutely not. It had nothing to do with it.”
The allegations of extortion are “absolutely false,” Bodenmiller said. The city and the CVB discussed reducing its funding when it negotiated its contract five years ago, he said.
“We’ve attempted to share the pain of necessary cuts across the board,” Bodenmiller said. “It’s just not true.”
The city has plenty of positive momentum, including recent announcements that Honda parts supplier Topre America would be more than 100 jobs to the former International Harvester site on Lagonda Avenue and the planned Kroger Marketplace in newly annexed land along Ohio 72.
“We could name project after project that has happened,” Bodenmiller said. “At the same time, our reputation is one of mixed messages. Often we get overshadowed by the condition of our roads and crime stories, as opposed to the positive things that are happening. We have a lot to be proud of.”
The downtown has also seen more than $400 million in investment since 2010, including two new hospitals, an ice rink, a brewery and a new seniors center.
“If not for the cuts from the state, we’d be doing well actually,” Bodenmiller said. “(The community) just needs a couple of breaks to keep things going.”
After last year’s tax issue failed, Bodenmiller said many people told him they didn’t understand the severity of Springfield’s financial future.
Springfield resident Carol Borck supports the increase because of the amount of police and fire calls that the city has received in recent years.
With increased revenue, the city will be able to re-open Fire Station No. 5 and add six police officers, she said.
With one less EMS unit and an increased number of overdose calls, response times will likely increase for other life-threatening emergencies, she said.
“We need this desperately … These guys put their lives on the line to help us,” Borck said. “It’s time we step up to help them.”
Springfield resident Trulee Wood doesn’t want the city to increase taxes. Wood would like to see more services but said she doesn’t trust the city to do what it says it will do with the tax money.
“If they would use it for more roads, police and getting the heroin out of Springfield, then definitely (yes),” Wood said. “But if they’re going to increase it because of (other things), then no.”
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