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Council grapples with 2021 budget, future of city services

Discussions shaping the City of Warren’s 2021 budget have gone far beyond the dollars and cents for next year’s spending plan.

While Warren City Council discussed the budget for at least the third time publicly on Monday — a fourth session will be needed and was set for Thursday night at 6 p.m. — the long term viability of city services hangs over finalizing a 2021 budget.

Councilman John Wortman — who has already said he will not support a tax increase of any kind — pointed out the decline in the city’s population in the last 50 years and asked “If spending doesn’t change… we have to have a serious discussion about how much city government costs,” adding that the city won’t be able to tax its way out of the problem.

No one in Monday’s meeting disputed that assertion.

Wortman suggested though that “residents have made known their thoughts about our tax and spend policies with their feet,” and called on the city’s focus to be on “incentivizing people to stay.”

He also cited the city’s percentage of homeless and poverty.

“How much longer can we expect our citizens to pay for spending we can no longer afford?” he asked, calling on council to “look to the future, rather than remaining stuck in the failed policies of the past.”

City Manager Nancy Freenock has previously spoken in support of a small tax increase as a “look to the future” but said the city would still have a positive cash balance at the end of 2021 without one.

The problem? 2022 when prior estimates indicated a structural deficit as high as $1.6 million.

Freenock didn’t disagree that the city can’t tax its way out of this problem.

“(We) have some departments that are very costly to operate,” she said, speaking in favor of situations where the city can collaborate with the surrounding townships to cover the cost of services provided.

“Something’s gotta give,” she said. “There are certain models we can look at. (It is) going to take cooperation from the unions. That’s where we are… There are just some services we have to provide.”

Wortman asked for a strategic plan moving forward.

“I think we need to have some very frank discussions” in 2021, Freenock suggested. While 2021 might be covered, she said bringing about a leaner government would mean “that city residents are going to have to do without” some services.

One item that has been ping-ponged in this discussion is a proposed rehabilitation project at Crescent Park.

Mayor Maurice Cashman said that he thought the project was out of the budget but noted that it was put back in and funded by a $175,000 cut to the paving budget.

Freenock said the basketball court there is dangerous and the trail is “not safe to walk on.”

Cashman said the project will be further discussed Thursday but said “we’ve gotta start living within our means.”

The budget draft that will be before council on Thursday will include a two mill tax increase which would generate $220,000.

Solicitor Andrea Stapleford said that is for advertising purposes and “puts everybody on notice that that’s a possibility.”

Councilman Gregory Fraser emphasized that including the increase in the budget’s advertising provides council with “flexibility” to leave the possible increase in the budget. “If (we are) continuing to run deficits, we are going to have to raise taxes. It gives us the flexibility to consider those options.”

Wortman questioned whether the budget should be advertised with the tax increase if there’s no intention to vote for it.

“You can say never, never, never,” Fraser said. “That’s fine. (It) just leads to shutting down the city.”

“I just think we need to live within our means,” Wortman responded.

“We should have that flexibility,” Fraser emphasized.

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