The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 16, 2013

Ashtabula County’s budget review committee files recommendations

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — Members of the Ashtabula County Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee are calling for performance-based wage increases and improved pay parity as part of their vision for more efficient county government.

Last fall, the group of five volunteers sat with commissioners as they went through the annual budget review process with elected officials and others who depend upon the general fund for their operation. Committee member Bernie Haytcher said the members held four or five meetings, plus email and phone calls, to arrive at the list. Member Tom Westlake compiled the observations and recommendations, copies of which were given to commissioners on Tuesday.

Westlake, Haytcher and George Toth have served on the committee in each of its three years of existence. Joining this year were rookies John Parker and Ann Marrison. The committee made 10 recommendations and four observations in this year’s letter to the board, a tradition established by the first committee.

“Basically, we came up with the ideas by talking among ourselves,” Westlake said. “I don’t think there was anything there that all of us did not support.”

He said the committee wants to sit down with the board and review each bullet point in the letter. They also would like to review progress made on the recommendations that previous committees made.

Westlake feels that one of the most successful suggestions to come from the committee was that the treasurer sell tax liens (real estate taxes) to a private firm. Treasurer Dawn Cragon followed through on the recommendation, the mere threat of which prompted dozens of taxpayers to arrange payment. The county also sold some of the liens, raising additional revenue for the county and schools.

Haytcher said the first committee recommended direct deposit of all county employee paychecks, a measure that was implemented soon thereafter. He also pointed to the intangible benefit of having citizens at the work sessions during which elected officials present their budget requests. In the past, those meetings had a tendency to become shouting matches as elected officials fought for a larger slice of the shrinking general fund pie.

This year’s recommendations include:

• Eliminate longevity increases, which are part of some labor contracts. The benefit was lopped last year from the contract with Ashtabula County Nursing Home employees, and the committee recommends having “wage increases reflect truly outstanding performance...”

• Commissions should work with elected officials to ensure there is wage-increase parity across the board in any given year. The committee recommended that increase be no more than 2 percent this year.

• The county’s courts should outsource their data processing positions by joining the county’s contract for this work. The budget requests from the common pleas courts and prosecutor had the largest increases of any proposal brought before the board. The committee urged the courts and commissioners to reach “equitable common ground” so the judges and prosecutor do not resort to journalizing their budgets.

• Set a goal of a 25-percent reduction in paper use across county offices in 2013. The committee recommended using two-sided printing, including for the budget proposal requests.

• Extend tracking of gasoline usage to general fund departments. Commissioners track and bill non-general fund departments for gasoline usage. Haytcher said extending the practice to the general fund and building the expense into the officials’ budget would provide a layer of accountability.

• Champion a 10 percent reduction in energy use in all county departments.

• Support the formation of a countywide centralized dispatch system under the county’s emergency management agency. Commissioners are seeking requests for proposals from vendors interested in studying the feasibility and costs of this move.

Under observations, the committee was critical of the board’s continued financial support of the Northeast Ohio Regional Airport in Denmark Township. The letter notes that, despite the airport authority’s stance that it is an economic development tool, it has not sought funding from sources that cater to those efforts, such as the Ashtabula County Port Authority.

The committee suggested that commissioners press the authority for a five-year plan with the eventual goal of freeing the county from any financial obligation to the airport. In the absence of that, the board suggested that “commissioners examine the possibility of withdrawing funding and facing the inevitable payment of its obligations regarding the airport while interest rates are low.”