Despite fiscal warning, mayor pledges to hire firefighters

EAST LIVERPOOL – Despite a warning to city council Monday from Auditor Kim Woomer that the city is facing a deficit next year, Mayor Jim Swoger pledged to bring fire department levels up to four men per shift.

Faced with the 2015 tax budget, council learned from finance Chairman Sherrie Curtis that recent information from the tax office indicates tax revenue has decreased, resulting in an anticipated shortfall next year of about $106,558.

Woomer told council that when she took office she found a $325,000 deficit, but that in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the city has ended in the black.

Although conceding that every department in the city needs more money, Woomer asked council, “If you want to go into the hole, that’s up to you, but do you really want to do that?”

Woomer said although there are several levies being placed before voters in the fall, those will be up to the taxpayers to support.

Councilman Ray Perorazio, a retired city firefighter, said he had been advised that plans call for not replacing firefighter Jeff Zehnder when he retires next year, saying, “We need four men on a crew. This is not what we agreed to when we gave up some of that money.”

He was referring to council recently taking a lower increase in its own salary in order to set aside $60,000 to hire a firefighter this year.

“The more you hire, the more you’ll go into debt,” Woomer warned.

Curtis noted there has been $100,000 encumbered in the budget for the recent retirement buy-out for assistant fire Chief Tim Walker but nothing for Zehnder’s retirement.

Perorazio called it “another shell game,” saying although council actually plans on hiring two firefighters this year – and, in fact took a unanimous voice vote to that effect Monday – if no one is hired to replace Zehnder, “We’ll be right back where we were,” with two crews of four men and one of three men.

Councilman Ryan Stovall said council actually needs to look at the possibility of cutting the health department and Municipal Court, saying, “Hard decisions have to be made.”

Perorazio said cutting the court would be the last thing he would support and that what is needed is more revenue, which he said could be generated with a tonnage fee he has been pushing to have implemented for three years. He and Law Director Charles Payne are still working on that legislation.

Council came to no conclusion, but during his comments, Swoger said, “Right, wrong or in between, I will honor your wishes: four, four, four (on a shift). If Jeff (Zehnder) leaves, I’ll hire another firefighter. I don’t know how, but I will.”

The tax budget was approved unanimously.

In other safety forces matters, council approved an ordinance extending the existing contract with the police dispatchers until Jan. 1, 2015. The contract with the Glass Molders, Pottery, Plastic and Allied Workers International Union Local 333 expired May 31.

Councilman Stovall abstained from the voting due to his brother being a member of the union.