Overspending May Force London to Cut Police Force, Other Services
The city of London, Ohio, avoided difficult decisions several years ago and must take budget cuts seriously, according to a city official interviewed by Media Trackers. However, some officials in the Madison County city are still reluctant to make cuts that they believe are unfair.
With a population of roughly 9,900, one of London’s chief expenses is its police department with 18 officers and a $1.9 million annual budget – over $105,000 per officer. A budget draft from London City Council proposes cutting spending on the police force and other city departments by 15 percent in order to cope with the economic downturn, which has depressed local government revenues. The city is also asking voters to raise the city’s income tax rate to 1.5 percent.
If not addressed, the city’s deficit spending is projected to jump 81 percent in 2013, up from this year’s deficit of $123,000.
Police Chief Dave Wiseman, who has been employed by the city’s police department for 23 years, told reporters from the Columbus Dispatch that while London may face a crisis now, bringing spending in line with revenue would cause “an even bigger crisis down the road,” warning that “no one is going to like what this city will become.”
Claiming that city councilmembers’ desire to stave off the fiscal crisis were only concerned about “dollar signs,” Police Chief Wisemen warned that the citys proposed budget cuts would prevent his officers from holding local educational safety exposititons, and would cause the police department to reduce its presence at events including London’s annual Rib & Jazz Fest and Strawberry Festival.
Likewise, Republican city mayor David Eades hopes that voters approve the requested tax hike so elected officials can minimize spending cuts.
Critics of the proposed cuts blame Governor John Kasichs reductions in state subsidization of municipalities for London’s troubles, but in an interview with Media Trackers city auditor Katie Hensel suggested the emphasis Dispatch reporter Holly Zachariah placed on the states “underfunding” of the city is misplaced. Instead, Hensel sees the city government’s problem as one of over-spending.
“Weve never based our ongoing operating budget on getting any money from the estate tax,” Hensel said. “Now, is that revenue thats lost to the city because it will no longer be coming in, from here and there? Yes, but it does not represent a significant operating reduction, because weve never budgeted it.”
Hansel said London’s financial distress is the result of politicians’ inability to make tough choices about cutting spending to cope with the economic downturns effect on tax revenues.
“Between 2008 and 2009, we had the same situation that we have now, where we were spending more than we bring in,” Hansel noted. “They made a conscious decision in 2009 to stop funding capital, and they took those funds and put them in the general fund. So instead of solving the expenditure problem and their ongoing operating costs, they stole from the capital fund.”
Hensel said that in 2009, the city “robbed Peter to pay Paul,” leading to a situation where “Paul is broke because Paul doesn’t have any money, and Peter is broke because we stole from him. Instead of making tough decisions to cut back on spending in 2009 and strategically realign the city, they took the money [from the capital improvement fund], and now that revenue has dried up. [...] Now there is no more money to take, and our expenditures are now way outside our revenue.”
If voters approve the proposed income tax hike on November 6, the city will be able to transfer $800,000 from the fire department into the citys general fund. However, approving the tax hikes would not completely negate the need for cuts, as a deficit of nearly $200,000 would remain for next year.
In 2007, London police officers received average salaries of $45,783, which is in line with median household incomes for the city. However, police officers’ salaries have ballooned over the past four years, jumping 21 percent between 2007 and 2011. The amount of taxpayer money spent on fringe benefits such as health insurance co-payments and retirement benefits saw a similar jump, increasing by nearly 39 percent over the same period.