Double-digit cuts a sure thing for Ohio cities, mayors say, full coronavirus impact unknown

Court Street in Athens, Ohio. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Mayors of many cities in Ohio agree that the steps taken to stem the spread of coronavirus were necessary, but the impacts of the stay-at-home orders and the business closures will be on their minds for the foreseeable future.

Municipalities already anticipate drops in income taxes — one of the main revenue sources for the state’s cities — and have dealt with unpredictability in the state’s local government fund, but the loss of business and cuts in grant funding have city administrators looking at budget cuts ranging from 5% to 20% in some towns.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is projecting an 18% loss across all city departments, which is why she thinks federal support will be important in the recovery.

“We’re going to experience an economic loss of a factor of two or three of the Great Recession 10 years ago,” Whaley told the Capital Journal.

The city of Middletown had already budgeted for nearly 10% less in income tax revenue, but they won’t truly know where they stand until the end of May, when unemployment numbers are released.

“We’re prioritizing our citizen services and economic growth because the second we stop looking to the future we’ll be left behind,” said Middletown Mayor Nicole Condrey.

Condrey wants Ohio to open up as quickly as it can so people can get back to work. She said her city hasn’t stopped paving roads, which she sees as a symbolic move looking forward. 

But the Middletown City Council plans to reduce expenditures by $285,000 in response to coronavirus losses. They’ve done what many other cities have done to save money, including leaving unfilled positions empty and holding off on promotions.

“I’m promoting a deeper look (at the budget),” Condrey said.

Youngstown has already been fighting against job losses and manufacturing downfalls, so a public health emergency just added to the struggles.

Starting April 22, the city developed a voluntary furlough process, which Youngstown Mayor Tito Brown says has engaged all union and non-union employees to discuss economic recovery.

“We still cannot fully anticipate what effect this global pandemic will have on our lifestyle going forward,” Brown said in a message sent to city staff.

The voluntary furloughs for nonessential employees come as the city of Youngstown anticipates a loss of income tax, casino tax and gas tax revenues. The casino tax generates about $1 million for the city.

The Ohio Department of Transportation estimates $86 million will be lost by local governments because of the pandemic, according to Brown. The governor’s directive that water shutoffs be prohibited for the time being will impact Youngstown as well.

“It was fair, but will have a long-term budget impact,” Brown wrote of the water shut-off reprieve.

The city of Athens in Southeastern Ohio is looking at double-digit personnel and equipment cuts, with unique revenue losses from the transient guest tax, which will dip with the lack of hotel stays usually brought during Ohio University’s graduations.

“A couple of hotels have closed and have already told us they’re struggling,” said Athens Mayor Steve Patterson. “We don’t anticipate seeing much from that tax.”

City departments are looking at where cuts can be made, and there’s already a moratorium on overtime outside of emergencies. Patterson estimated that another 5% cut citywide would save $1.1 million. This includes cuts to engineering and public works, and there are thoughts of reducing things like uniform expenditures and cell phone use.

“We’re doing a lot to sit and keep our revenues strong and obviously trimming everywhere we can, but everyone’s feeling the pinch,” Patterson said.

The effect of the gas tax is hard to monitor, Patterson said, but the effect the state’s budget-tightening has had on street projects could have a bigger effect. The more than $1 million received through an Ohio Department of Transportation’s small cities grant could be in jeopardy since the state won’t release the funding for an Ohio Public Works Grant that was meant to supplement the project.

The governor and his administration have been doing what needs to be done to stop the virus, Patterson said, but the effects from one city to the next can’t be fixed in one blanket solution.

“There’s pain all over the place,” Patterson said. “Gov. DeWine, as great a job as he’s doing, he doesn’t know what we need down here in Athens, or how best to distribute the funds.”

Condrey said the cities have to focus on their bottom line to keep services going, but they also need to keep in mind the morale of residents, and the services that might be needed outside of the city’s realm.

“I think that the health impacts from a mental perspective are far greater than the impact that the virus has,” Condrey said.

Since March 23, Condrey has done daily Facebook Live sessions for citizens, including mental health resources, which is something she says is important in a small city. She said she felt the contact was important knowing the effects of isolation.

“A strong community can take that on if we keep our vision within our circle of contacts,” Condrey said. “We need to be checking up on each other.”

Jake Zuckerman contributed to this report.