With local government wages outpacing private sector income in Lucas County 2.5 percent to 1.1 percent between 2000 to 2009, and the median household income dropping 2.7 percent from 2008 to 2009, some are questioning the wisdom of local public bodies asking voters to dig deeper into their pockets and pass new levies on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Lucas County Children’s Services, Mental Health & Recovery Services, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, the Metroparks of the Toledo Area, Toledo Parks & Recreation, and Toledo Public Schools are all asking the public for more money.
A drop in property values has lead to budget cuts, staff reductions and some wage cuts or freezes for these tax payer funded entities. Still, administrators’ salaries far outpace Lucas County’s median income, which fell to $40,161 in 2009 from $41,291 in 2008. That may not sit well with many voters struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy.
Steve Madewell, executive director of the Metroparks of the Toledo Area, said some of the $7.1 million in revenue that would be generated by the district’s new 0.9-mill levy on the Nov. 6 ballot would go toward salaries.
Sixteen percent would be targeted to staff and contracted services, he said. The other 84 percent would be used for capital improvements, including trails, replacing and repairing playground and picnic areas and controlled land acquisition.
The district has made budget cuts and eliminated positions through attrition, according to Madewell. Some cuts have included tabling projects, such as land purchases, he said.
“We have not had to do salary freezes but we have eliminated positions through attrition,” he said. “We have not had budget increases. We have expanded seasonal and part-time employees to keep our services up and the overhead down. This is not about building a bureaucracy. It is about projects being completed and providing services to those who play, live and work in Lucas County. If the levy does not pass, we would have to reevaluate things for the following year. There will not be personnel cuts, but we would continue to delay projects.”
Dave Zenk, superintendent of parks, said savings were realized through contract negotiations with the organization’s bargaining unit, particularly in health care, the longevity program and a merit based pay system.
“We’ve had fairly significant changes in our longevity program and the way health care is provided,” said Zenk. “We’re actually one of the few districts in the state that has gone to a full merit based pay system, whereby employees of our organization participate in ongoing educational and training opportunities in order to receive two performance based pay increases in the last five years.”
The metroparks, like other public bodies, is seeking more money to offset declines in property tax revenue and state funding, said Scott Carpenter, marketing and public relations director of the district.
“We’re concerned about falling behind. Our director refers to it as a `downward spiral.’ We’re down 10 employees. We’ve tried very hard not to let those cuts affect service delivery to visitors to the metroparks. We’re not sure how much longer we can continue to do that. In order to head off any of those service interruptions or backlog of maintenance, we’re trying to get back to where we expected to be – to be able to maintain what we have and to finish a few things that we’ve started.”
Among the projects that have been started, he said, is Pearson North. Finishing it is at the top of the list.
“It is number one on our list to finish up because we’re so close. We’re almost there. Just needs a few more things,” said Carpenter.
Another project that is underway is the Middlegrounds, near the Anthony Wayne Bridge, he added.
“We’re excited about that project because it will be the first new metropark in 40 years. Wildwood Preserve was the last one,” said Carpenter.
Besides Pearson, in Oregon, other metroparks in the district include Wildwood Preserve off Central, Swan Creek Preserve in South Toledo, Oak Openings Preserve in Swanton, Side Cut in Maumee, Farnsworth and Bend View in Waterville, Secor in Berkey, and Providence in Grand Rapids.
The Metroparks of the Toledo Area is also a managing partner of the Wabash Cannonball Trail and the University Parks Trail, said Carpenter. The Toledo Botanical Garden is also under the umbrella of the metroparks.
The metroparks is also working on the Fallen Timbers Battlefield in Maumee, and the Blue Creek Conservation Area in Whitehouse, he said. “These are projects that are getting used but are not fully open as metroparks. I’m not promising those will be open in the next few years, but with passage of the levy, we’ll continue to make progress on them,” said Carpenter.
The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $27.56 annually compared to the $8.46 county residents currently pay.
The district has a 1.4-mill general operating levy that is set to expire in five years.
Lucas County Children’s Services, which is seeking a renewal of a 1-mill levy as well as an additional .85-mills to meet an increased demand in services, has cut costs over the years, according to Julie Malkin, public information officer.
Most of the levy will go toward salaries and programs, she said.
“The largest chunk is going to salaries, placement costs, foster care, child welfare contracts, tutoring, mentoring and counseling,” said Malkin.
There has been “general belt tightening” within the agency, she said. There has not been an increase in salaries in three years for the non-bargaining salaried positions.
“The unions (Professional Guilds of Ohio and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) took a zero percent increase last year,” said Malkin, adding that the agency is currently in collective bargaining.
“We have also cut the Kinship Subsidy Program, which has reduced financial support to help families who take in family members,” said Malkin. “At any given time, our case load is 1,200 kids. They are very important. We have to keep our most vulnerable citizens safe. The children rely on us to make sure they are safe.”
The agency, which currently has 374 full and part-time employees, eliminated 30 positions through attrition in the last three years, said Malkin. “At the management level, we fill jobs as we need to. We are trying to fill positions in terms of `client facing positions,’ those employees who are working with kids and families.”
The agency, which investigates reports of abused and neglected children, has seen the number of reported abuse in the county climb to 4,000 in just one year, said Dean Sparks, executive director of the agency.
“When times are tough, the stress on families is significant,” he said.
“We saw significant progress in 2007 when we had a 20 percent reduction in child abuse in Lucas County. But since that time, we’re back to where we were to pre-2007 numbers. The number of children who are being abused has increased as well as has the severity of the abuse. We relate that specifically to the economic conditions and the stress families live under. We see the same with domestic violence and substance abuse,” said Sparks.
The agency, he said, has reduced the millage it has requested from voters over the years.
“We figured out ways to get enough federal money so we wouldn’t have to come to the voters. So we actually reduced the tax burden fairly significantly,” said Sparks. “When that happened, we said we were going to give money back to the voters until we need it again.”
The agency is receiving fewer federal and local funds, which has caused the board to request the levy on the ballot next month.
Children’s services won’t collect on the levy until 2014 because its current 1-mill levy isn’t set to expire until the end of next year.
The additional levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $26 annually. The renewal and additional millage together would cost the same homeowner $56.66 per year and would generate about $12.9 million annually.
The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library is seeking a 2.9-mill levy to restore some of the cuts made in state funding in the last five years, according to Margaret Danziger, deputy director of the public library system. Two mills would be a renewal of the library’s existing levy, and 0.9-mills for additional revenue.
The cuts were made after state funding decreased 18 percent in 2009, said Rhonda B. Sewell, media relations coordinator.
“We used to have five libraries open on Sundays, now we have only one open on that day,” said Sewell. “Branch hours were also severely cut. It really affected our community.”
Approximately 21 percent of the revenue will go towards salaries, said Sewell.
“If the levy is passed, the additional funds would be used to restore morning, weekend and evening hours, and to purchase more books and library materials, which we cannot provide right now,” said Sewell. “We rely on passage of the levy for nearly half of our funding. We will lose nearly 50 percent of our funding at Midnight on Dec. 31 if the levy doesn’t pass.”
Danziger said libraries are needed even more during recessions.
“During tough times, that’s exactly when we want strong libraries,” she said. “A place that is free with educational and learning resources for everybody. When things are tight, the public library is the one that does need to be funded because it is so supportive of every group you can think of in the community. We are busier than ever. We have more people coming in to use our resources. Some are very desperate and this is the only place they can come to find computers and to be trained by staff.”
Budget cuts, said Sewell, would be harsh.
“Libraries would have to close. There would also be a reduction in staff, those who help library users, and a slash in library materials,” she said.
The library’s two unions - the Association of Public Library Employees and the Communication Workers of America – have helped keep costs down through contract negotiations in salaries and benefits, said Danziger
The levy would generate about $21 million per year, which is about half of the library’s budget. The remainder is funded by the State of Ohio Public Library Fund.
The levy will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $88 per year for five years, or $27 per year more than what property owners are currently paying.
In the Toledo Public Schools district, salaries have been cut considerably since 2010, when voters defeated a 0.75 percent income tax proposal and 7.8-mill operating levy.
The district is financially strapped as a result of reduced enrollment, lower property values and fewer state dollars.
The school board last summer cut the salaries of Jerome Pecko, superintendent of the district, and Dan Romano, treasurer, by 4 percent, which both men had requested. The staff also had a 1 percent cut in wages in 2010 and another 2.5 percent reduction last year.
“We went after benefits significantly,” said Pecko, adding that employee health care premium contributions increased to 13.75 percent this year, and will rise to 15 percent next year.
“We also pushed for more out of pocket expenses for health care."
Now, the district hopes voters will acknowledge their shared sacrifice and vote for a 4.9-mill operating levy on the Nov. 6 ballot, some of which will go towards salaries.
“There is pain out there,” said Pecko. “My own intention, with the board’s support, would be to provide some additional support in the school buildings. We are very, very short handed in some of our buildings, particularly at the elementary level where we have large enrollments. We’re going to do a staff analysis of the district, and if the levy passes, that’s one area where would see an increase. Overall, our budget is 80 percent salaries and benefits, and the rest is other operating expenses like utilities. As we move down the road a few years, we’re looking at a major deficit. Some of the dollars from this levy would most certainly give us an extended period of time without a deficit.”
The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $150 per year.
Josh Thurston, a promoter of the new 1-mill, 10 year levy for Toledo parks and recreation, said revenue would be earmarked for the parks and recreation, which currently is funded by the city’s general fund.
“There will be no administrative hiring within the department,” he said. “I think the city of Toledo’s cutbacks have been well publicized. They are operating at a much lower level than they have been for a long, long time. Their public sector unions have been giving back raises, benefits, for a number of bargaining sessions now.”
The new levy would make available more general fund money for other city services, he said.
“The first place the city takes money from is the parks department. I think we’re looking for a more sensible way to fund our parks and a more sensible way to fund our city,” said Thurston. “We’re looking to free up about $1 million in the general fund with this levy that would then go towards hiring police and firefighters and street paving. Anything within the general fund could be shifted over to those core services, since this levy would be exclusively used for parks. We’re not just talking about the maintenance of the parks. We’re also talking about programming for kids and seniors. That has also slipped off as we’ve gone through this recession, this tough time in our economy.”
An independent funding source for the department, he added, would be in line with surrounding communities.
“Right now, Oregon, Sylvania, and Perrysburg have a similar levy in place to help out their parks. The city of Toledo does not. If you live near a park, you know our city parks are in decline. When you drive around the city, you can see our parks are an eyesore. They need more care and need to be kept up, and they are not. I think what we’re really trying to ask is how should we fund our public parks and recreation? Should we be funding them as surrounding municipalities do with a similar tax or lump it all in a general fund and have it be funded at the whims of the mayor and have it be raided for other services? Should we have that system or have a system where the money is dedicated to the parks and recreation department every year at a low cost?”
The levy, which would generate about $3 million annually, would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $30.62 per year.
The Mental Health & Recovery Services Board, which is seeking a new 1-mill levy for 10 years, has made a 20 percent cut in staff since 2009, according to Jerry Kasprzak, prevention coordinator of the agency.
“We’re down to about 13 people. According to state law, for us to do our job, that’s about as low as we can get,” he said. Funds from the levy, he added, would go for programs and services.
“We’re not anticipating any raises or bonuses, cash options or anything like that.”
“We understand these are difficult times,” said Kasprzak. “But the decision to go forward with the levy is based on demand. The demand for our services for alcohol treatment has increased. With the passage of this levy, we will try to meet this demand.”
Kasprzak said the agency also wants to be able to help fight the onset of mental illness.
“If we do not pass this levy, we will only have to focus on the people with the most severe chronic mental health problems. We want to extend that out to people who are borderline, with depression, bipolar, schizophrenia - those types of mental illnesses. And we’d like to catch that before it manifests into a crisis,” said Kasprzak.
“There are some people who have insurance that pays for their mental illness, including medication and therapist time,” he added. “We are working with people who do not have insurance. We are the ones who are the gatekeepers before it really gets to that crisis situation. People who are in mental health services, who are in treatment, stabilize. They are able to become more productive, get jobs, pay taxes.”
The levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $30.62 more annually and generate about $7 million per year. Kasprzak said it is the first time the agency has sought more money in 24 years.
The revenue from the Imagination Station’s request to renew its 0.17-mill levy will go toward maintaining the facility, not for salary increases, according to Lori Hauser, chief executive officer of the science center.
The facility receives both public and private funding, she said.
“We use our public money primarily for operations, exhibits maintenance and the facility,” she said.
Public funds pay for the salaries of the director of operations and exhibits director/chief scientist, she said. Private funds pay for the positions of director of marketing, controller, assistant director of STEM education, and chief executive officer.
The levy, first passed in 2008, was supposed to bring in $1.59 million per year, she said. But property reappraisals and devaluations reduced revenue to $1.3 million.
“We are not asking voters to help us get back the $200,000 we lost in levy funds. It is our responsibility to make up that loss,” she said.
Exhibits like “Bodies Revealed,” which was at the center last year, helped the organization recoup some of that loss, she said. And corporate investments have brought in $2 million.
“We try to bring in popular travel exhibitions and we have been lucky with corporate investments,” said Hauser. “We are trying to manage funding and live within our means at the same time.”
The center, which has 21 full-time employees, 55 part-time employees, and 85 volunteers, has an annual payroll of $378,484.
“When I joined in 2001, it was COSI Toledo. We had over 40 full-time employees at that time. We’re trying to be responsible but we require public assistance,” she said.
The levy, originally passed in 2008, will generate about $1.5 million per year. It will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $5.21 annually.