Youngstown Mayor Brown ducks city’s financial troubles in speech

It didn’t come as a shock that Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown didn’t really discuss the city’s financial problems during last week’s State of the City address.

After all, Gov. Mike DeWine didn’t mention the idling of the General Motors plant in Lords-town during his State of the State address. President Donald Trump didn’t talk about the federal government shutdown during his State of the Union address.

But that doesn’t mean Youngstown’s problems are going away.

Brown mentioned the rehiring of Michael Abouserhal as a financial consultant to help the city with its financial issues during his speech.

As he did last year, Abouserhal, a CPA and former Ohio Lottery Commission executive director, is evaluating the city’s long-term budgetary forecast as well as – among other things – giving advice to the pressing issue of what the city can do regarding the possibility of having to pay about $5.5 million from its general fund for money the state auditor’s office said was inappropriately spent from its water, wastewater and sanitary funds for economic-development projects.

If the city is required to repay the latter three funds with money from the general fund, it simply won’t be able to do so.

City council recently passed a budget with no surplus in the general fund so even a payment plan over a number of years would almost certainly result in Youngstown going into fiscal emergency.

Since 2010, the city has used close to $10 million from its water, wastewater and sanitary funds for business development. The state is looking at the $4.5 million spent in 2017 and about $1 million spent last year.

The issue came to light after the city in March 2018 settled a class-action lawsuit that questioned the legality of the practice.

Another major issue facing the city this year is its sewer rates.

Brown has repeatedly refused to raise sewer rates to pay for projects mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency – including several that are either done or underway – until an affordability study is done to see how much residents can pay, as well as talk with the federal and state EPA to discuss a possible reduction of the $160 million commitment Youngstown made to upgrade its sewer system.

The refusal to raise rates led the state EPA to delay about $12 million in loans to the city for wastewater improvements. Without those loans, the city would have to pay the money from its wastewater fund, putting it into deficit next year. The city already has paid about $1.5 million from its wastewater-fund reserve.

Arcadis, an international firm hired by the city for a sewer-rate study, recommended in October 2018 it be increased 8 percent a year for five years, starting Jan. 1 of this year.

If approved, the monthly sewer rate would go from $98.91 per 1,000 cubic feet now to $106.82 this year; $115.37 in 2020; $124.60 in 2021; $134.57 in 2022; and $145.33 in 2023.

That rate increase would cover only about $75 million of the $160 million in improvements the city is required to make. That first phase of improvements is for work at the wastewater treatment plant on Poland Avenue, and that work is either done or underway.

The rest of the work is for a new facility near the plant to better control sewage in heavier rainfalls and an intercepter sewer to keep wastewater from flowing into Mill Creek.

Also, there’s still friction between Brown and some members of city council.

It was a problem before the election. It was a problem last year, and it’s still a problem.

The Vindicator had endorsement interviews with city council candidates earlier this week, including with two incumbents seeking re-election: Julius T. Oliver in the 1st Ward and Lauren McNally in the 5th Ward.

Neither spoke highly of Brown.

Although all of council and Brown are Democrats, Oliver, McNally and Basia Adamczak in the 7th Ward supported Sean McKinney, an independent, in the 2017 mayor’s race.

McNally said under Brown there’s no economic development, not a permanent finance director hired and “mass chaos” with some city departments and programs.

“He deflects very well,” she said of Brown.

Oliver said of the mayor: “I don’t see a plan. I don’t see a vision.”

Oliver said he’s tried to work with Brown, who recently endorsed Bryant Youngblood Jr., who’s challenging Oliver in the May Democratic primary.