Wednesday, June 25, 2003

No tax, Monroe council is told

Residents: Mess not our fault

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MONROE - An overflow crowd packed into the City Council's meeting here Tuesday, peppering city officials with complaints and questions about years of alleged financial mismanagement that could lead to a tax issue on the fall ballot.

"Folks, you let us down," resident Greg Billingsley told council members. "And we shouldn't be the ones to pay the price."

More than 120 people - twice the capacity of council chambers - were drawn to the meeting by recent revelations that years of alleged budgetary mismanagement have left this booming city's cash reserves depleted by more than $1 million. The city has an estimated deficit of $5 million in its annual operating budget of $10.5 million.

The overflow crowd stood in the lobby and the basement, where people listened on loudspeakers.

Two top city officials, former City Manager Donald Whitman and former Financial Director David Collins, were fired in recent months and some council members and city officials have blamed the two for mismanaging and withholding key budgetary information about the city's dwindling finances.

There have been no accusations that any money was stolen. Whitman said recently that he was unaware of the city's financial problems; Collins has not returned repeated phone calls for comment.

Some residents focused their blame largely against City Council members.

Moreover, some made it clear that neither a proposed income tax increase from 1.0 to 1.5 percent nor a 4.8-mill property tax increase on the November ballot would be viewed favorably in the wake of mishandled finances. Both options have been floated recently by city officials.

"I'm still shocked by your arrogance," said resident Thomas Kidd, "to ask me for more money when you have no control of your money."

Resident Mary Jo Bauer told council, "It's kind of scary to have our taxes raised. I'm disappointed that this has happened, and as it stands right now, I would not vote for a tax increase."

Before the meeting, officials of the council's Finance Committee heard from Financial Director Jay Stewart. "We're extremely lean right now ... and if nothing happens at the polls this fall, we'll have to make cuts," Stewart said.

Councilman Steve Tannreuther apologized to the crowd. "Everyone sitting up here tonight should share in the responsibility for what happened. I failed you, and I take full responsibility," he said.

He added that he and others on council would work diligently to correct the problems.

Council took no vote Tuesday.

City officials have until Aug. 19 to place a tax issue on the November ballot. Council will meet again July 8 to decide which tax issue - if any - will be presented to voters.


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