Thursday, June 26, 2003

Monroe seeks citizens' advice

Council wants help with budget mess

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MONROE - City leaders are trying to turn public outcry into involvement by forming a citizens committee to help solve Monroe's financial mess.

More than 120 residents attended the council meeting Tuesday night, with many angry about recent revelations that Monroe's finances have been mismanaged and inaccurately reported for years, leaving the city in a deficit and facing layoffs if voters reject a tax increase this fall.

But Monroe Mayor Mike Morris encouraged the overflow crowd to use their energy to help the council come up with ideas to eliminate the city's $5 million fund deficit in the city's annual operating budget of $10.5 million.

Though city officials had reported a $1 million depletion in cash reserves, more recent projections now have the city's cash reserves totaling about $500,000. But the city still faces a $1.2 million deficit in 2004, as well as possible layoffs, cutbacks in city services and the halting of capital improvement projects if no new taxes are levied.

Morris proposed a citizen finance review committee, in which volunteer residents could help city officials find solutions.

"We need to hear more from the public," said Morris, whose idea was quickly accepted by fellow council members and city administrators. "We have a great city, but we're at a crossroads here."

Council was leaning toward either a 4.84-mill property tax increase, which would cost the owner of a $150,000 home an additional $222 annually, or increasing the city's income tax from 1.0 to 1.5 percent. But the complaints voiced to council now have Morris saying "there may be a combination of alternatives" that may include a tax issue and cuts in city personnel and services.

City officials have blamed financial mismanagement by two former Monroe officials, City Manager Donald Whitman and Finance Director David Collins, both of whom were forced to resign this year.

Whitman has made limited public comments since his firing, but said he relied on Collins to provide accurate budget information. Collins has not responded to requests for comment.

City Council will consider a new tax issue at its July 8 meeting and is expected to vote on any tax issue no later than its Aug. 19 meeting, just before the state deadline of Aug. 21, for putting tax issues on the November ballot.

Acting City Manager William Brock said getting more of Monroe's residential base involved would be helpful.

"It could be a positive step for us to have another voice and receive firsthand input from people who want to contribute," said Brock.

Monroe residents interested in volunteering for the committee can call city hall at 539-7374, press "0" and ask for William Brock.


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