Monday, July 7, 2003

Ohio cuts back local funding

Some relieved 2.2% trim isn't worse

By Leo Shane III
Gannett Columbus bureau

COLUMBUS - Local government funding took fewer cuts in the new state budget than originally expected. But taxpayers should still expect to see local services trimmed back.

The state funds, designed to supplement county and municipal government budgets, will drop 2.2 percent from fiscal year 2003 levels to about $802 million. The state's library support fund will be frozen at its 2003 level - about $453 million - at least until next June.

But John Mahoney, deputy director of the Ohio Municipal League, said those funding reductions are a relief compared to cuts previously discussed by lawmakers. At one point in budget discussions this spring, some considered eliminating the funds altogether.

"We came out of that pretty well," he said. "If local revenues start to come back, those cuts will have only a minimal impact. If they don't, it'll just be a contributing factor in tough municipal budgets."

Michael Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association, said his members are obviously disappointed to see any reduction in funds. But he said the likely result will be "belt-tightening" of local spending, not anything more severe.

"When you're talking about local government it's only basic services, and there are no frills to cut," he said. "You could see some layoffs and reductions in police and fire staff. It'll be tighter, but most should be able to maintain services."

Mahoney said many wealthy suburban communities rely mainly on local taxes to fund services, so they likely won't be hurt much by the cuts.

But the state's large cities and poor rural communities will feel a significant impact.

Mansfield's finance director Sandra Converse said the city has laid off six employees, frozen salaries for remaining workers and halted training and new equipment purchases.

"Right now we're on target for a balanced budget this year," she said. "But next year, if there are further cuts (to the local government funds), it will be much more difficult."

Libraries across the state have begun feeling the effects of the state funding freeze. That funding, a percentage of the state's income tax, has dropped nearly 9 percent in the last two years.

Linda Murray, government relations director for the Ohio Library Council, said many libraries have already scaled back staff and operating hours. The freeze in funding will only hurt more.

"Patrons are going to see it," she said. "Most libraries used their reserve money in 2002. Now we're looking at cutting back building budgets and materials budgets."

Since the library funds are dependent on the state income tax, Murray said, poor collections over the next year could mean further cuts in the 2005 fiscal year.

But if collections are up, the libraries will still be capped at the $453 million mark.

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