Ohio mayor plans to lay off 20 firefighters

Lancaster has 81 firefighters, including the chief and assistant chief; layoffs would reduce staffing to 1980s levels, amid greater call volume

By Mary Beth Lane
The Columbus Dispatch

LANCASTER, Ohio — The mood in the city's three firehouses is grim these days.

Mayor David S. Smith told the City Council this month that he plans to lay off 31 city workers by Oct. 1, including 20 firefighters and six police officers, to balance the city general-fund budget as required by state law.

Lower-than-expected income-tax collection and reduced local-government funding from the state blew a hole in this year's $23.6 million budget, Smith said.

"This is the beginning," said Susan Cave, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League.

"All of the cuts that came as a result of the state budget will hit the hardest starting Jan. 1. I think we are going to see more of this" in other communities, she said.

Cities trying to weather the recession already have cut services during the past few years — many of them postponing capital improvements, not filling vacancies and freezing wages, Cave said.

"Now you will have cuts in personnel or cuts in wages," she said.

Smith, a Republican running unopposed for re-election, and the Republican-controlled City Council are asking voters on Nov. 8 to approve a 0.25-percentage-point increase in the city income tax for five years, raising it to 2 percent. The increase would generate $2.5 million annually to help balance next year's budget, the mayor has said.

The general-fund budget includes the salaries of about 220 city workers, most of them police officers and firefighters.

Lancaster voters also are being asked to approve a 2.9-mill, 10-year property tax. It would generate about $2 million annually to be used exclusively for street repairs. It would cost homeowners $89 more per $100,000 of property valuation annually. Lancaster property owners currently pay $1,027 per $100,000 of valuation in property taxes annually to the city, county and school district, according to the Fairfield County auditor.

The school district also is on the Nov. 8 ballot, asking for a 4.1-mill levy to help build five elementary schools. The levy would cost homeowners $126 more a year per $100,000 in valuation.

Firefighters plan to campaign for the income-tax increase. But there is concern that voters facing three issues on the local ballot will think they are being asked for too much money at once, said firefighter Billy Squires, president of Local 291 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Lancaster has 81 firefighters, including the chief and assistant chief. Laying off 20 would reduce staffing to 1980s levels, even as the number of medic and fire runs continues to rise in the city of nearly 37,000 residents, said Capt. Jack Mattlin. Previous budget cuts idled one of three engine trucks and reduced staffing on medic trucks, he said.

The six police officers to be laid off are from a total staff of 69 sworn peace officers, including the chief.

The City Council isn't required to vote to approve the layoffs but supports the mayor's plan, said Councilman Tom Stoughton, chairman of the finance committee.

"I am looking for fiscal discipline," he said. "Revenues will continue to dip. We have to be prudent with every dollar we have."

Some residents are worried about the pending firefighter layoffs.

"I think it's wrong," said Janet Kidder, 70. "I think somebody is going to die because they're not there."

Genevieve Peyton, 88, doesn't want layoffs, either, but she understands that the mayor has to balance the budget. "I don't think they should happen, but if they don't have funding, I don't know what else they can do," she said.

Firefighter Nathan Sharp is trying to figure out his next move, too. The 29-year-old was hired in 2005 and has little seniority. "I am number 12 of 20," he said.

Sharp said he plans to start looking for a job at another fire department. "Maybe more guys are retiring and I can get in somewhere else," he said.

Few communities will be safe havens, Cave warned. The full effect of the state budget on cities will set in next year, including another cut in local-government funding and the accelerated phase-out of payments intended to compensate for the revenue lost from the abolition of the tangible personal-property tax on business inventories. The state's repeal of the estate tax will hit in 2013.

All of this will make it harder on cities trying to balance their budgets, Cave said. "They're left with not many options."

Copyright 2011 The Columbus Dispatch
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