CITY GOVERNMENT Struthers operating without budget

The city's biggest financial problem is health care for its employees.
STRUTHERS -- Nearly two months into the new year, Struthers still doesn't have a 2005 budget.
Mayor Dan Mamula told city council Wednesday he can't present one for approval until the city Auditor Tina Morrell clarifies some information on the state of city finances.
One of the issues is evidence of possible overpayment of all salaried city officials and office holders in 2004, Mamula said. That has been sent to the state auditor to figure out. The second is a dispute over how funds earmarked to pay obligations incurred in 2004 will be carried over to the 2005 budget.
"We need to get on the same page," Mamula said, adding that Morrell is changing some accounting procedures in a way that is confusing just how much is available in city funds. Morrell was absent from the meeting because of a family illness and was unavailable to comment. By law, the budget must be finalized and approved by March 31.
Under pressure
Once the numbers add up, Mamula warned the meeting that the public might not like what they see. City finances are under pressure on a number of fronts. "If the state and federal governments do what they say they are going to do, there is nothing this council or I can do to avoid pain," Mamula said.
Gov. Bob Taft's new budget calls for cuts in local aid while the Bush administration is looking to cut Community Development Block Grants and economic development. "There should be outrage; if not, one day you will fly over Ohio at night and it will look like Kansas -- they'll be no lights down below."
More immediate, there are two vacancies in the Struthers Police Department, and there may be two dispatcher vacancies. And the city is debating funding a ninth firefighter position -- and may be forced to if a judge rules in favor of someone seeking to fill the position.
Mamula said these areas are priorities and he is looking for cuts elsewhere to pay for them.
Health care
The biggest problem is health care for city workers, which accounts for $600,000 out of the $3.5 million city budget. Last year, health care blew its budget by $120,000. A health-care cost containment committee now has the power to unilaterally adjust the health-care provisions of collective bargaining agreements to control costs, Mamula said.
The council also heard from Nancy Euber, a neighbor of Yellow Creek Park and a critic of how it has been managed since operations were turned over to the Mill Creek Metro Parks District. She said the park is in disrepair and a break-in in December in a parks building robbed the facility of much of its equipment and is a sign that Metro Parks is not paying enough attention.
"You need to know how our tax dollars are working at this end of the county," Euber told the council, urging them to put pressure on the district. She complained that since the park was leased to Metro Parks in 2004, the fall fest and Christmas children's party was canceled. And she waved a copy of a Metro Parks events calendar that showed just one event for January and February and none in March at Mill Creek.
In other action:
UThe council approved 6-0 a change in the ordinance governing the fire department to clearly state the department will not exceed 11 firefighters. Previous language mentioned just the 11 positions, leading to arguments that the city was required to put 11 on the payroll. There are eight now budgeted.
UA public hearing was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. March 30 to get public comment on a proposed zoning change for an area of Terrance Street, Short Street and Walton Avenue from Residential C to Commercial A. Safety Service director John Sveda said the area is mainly commercial now, and the zoning change would make it easier for developers interested in the area to get their plans approved.
UMamula said the city is working with Astro Development Corp. and the Brownfields Restoration Group on getting a $620,000 state grant to finish a cleanup of the former coke plant.