When it rains, it pours in fiscally leaky city of Niles

Niles City Hall’s leaking roof is a stark reminder of government’s fiscal collapse that triggered a declaration of emergency in 2014 by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.

But it’s the projected costs of replacing all or parts of the 24,000-square-foot roof, the remediation of mold caused by water seeping into the building, and repairs to the damaged basement wall that have spotlighted the city’s budgetary crisis.

It will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to address the dangerous structural deficiencies plaguing city hall – money that Niles does not have.

Indeed, last week, the state-mandated Fiscal Planning and Supervision Commission overseeing Niles’ finances delivered a crippling blow to the effort to shed the state’s shackles.

“We need expenditure reduction – period,” said Quentin Porter, chairman of the commission, after state auditors revealed that city government is deficit spending. But it was the news that the general fund is projected to have only $27,000 at the end of 2017 that had Quentin and other commission members in a tizzy.

The panel, which includes Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia, unanimously voted to order the administration to submit an amended financial recovery plan by Dec. 19.

The original plan, which was developed by former Mayor Ralph Infante and approved by city council and the fiscal planning commission, centered on a five-year spending blueprint.

Infante lost his re-election bid in 2015 after Scarnecchia successfully blamed him for mismanaging the city’s finances.

Scarnecchia, a former member of council, took office with great expectations on the part of city residents. Now, however, the mayor appears to be conceding that his strategy of preserving jobs is not working.

Deficit spending

By voting with the majority, Scarnecchia agreed to end deficit spending in every department and to develop a maintenance program for the 89-year-old city hall.

The 2017 general fund budget contains no allocations for the building’s improvements.

In addition to the problems plaguing city hall, the city’s Wellness Center faces a $200,000 deficit by the end of this year and needs another $40,000 to finish the year.

The mayor is working on a proposal to cut the center’s mounting expenses.

The latest upheaval pertaining to Niles’ finances shows that state Auditor Yost was on the button in June when he blasted Scarnecchia and members of the administration for playing politics with the budget.

Yost criticized the mayor for being more concerned about preserving jobs than dealing with the city’s fiscal realities.

“[You can’t] go on making decisions based on not wanting someone to lose a job,” Yost said. “I expect political leaders to serve their constituents and not their cronies in city hall. This is not a labor versus management problem, it’s a politician problem.”

So what brought about the mayor’s change of heart?

Last month, Scarnecchia and at least two members of council were sickened from the ill effects of the mold in city hall. The mayor required hospitalization.

It seemed to be a wake-up call for Scarnecchia because he now realizes that making tough decisions when it comes to the budget is an important part of being the city’s chief executive.

He is well aware that five years ago, his predecessor, Infante, was warned of the potential dangers of the flimsy and time-worn roof on city hall. Rather than act in the best interest of the community, Infante and members of his administration decided to go with a patch job on the roof instead of embracing a credible recommendation for full roof replacement.

But it isn’t just the general fund that’s imploding. The water fund will continue to lose money in 2017 even though its deficit was reduced by more than $1 million this year.

“The appropriations are as much as the revenue coming in [and] something’s got to give,” said Fiscal Supervisor Nita Hendryx.

Yes, something has got to give – in the way Niles is managing its finances.