EAST PALESTINE — Village officials in favor of a .5 percent income tax increase say it is needed to provide not only better, but adequate, safety services to residents.
They outlined their reasons during a public meeting on Monday called specifically to discuss the potential increase, which council is looking into placing on the May primary election ballot.
Council has yet to actually vote on placing the tax on the ballot but will be making that decision at a future meeting.
Officials in favor said the police, fire and EMS departments are operating on skeleton crews and want to see income tax money go toward these departments, in addition to the general fund.
The village already has a 1 percent income tax and if the measure goes to the ballot and passes, those who live and work in the village would be paying on 1.5 percent total.
The village has learned that it is allowed by law to allocate a minimum of 25 percent each of potential new income tax revenue to the police department and fire department, with the remaining 50 percent going into the general fund.
The village would be allowed to increase the allocation to more than 25 percent, if it so chooses.
Thompson has estimated that a .5 percent income tax increase would generate an additional $436,542 to the village each year. That would mean that the police and fire departments would each receive an additional $109,135.
Acting Mayor Alan Cohen said the allocations for the police and fire departments would go toward general operations, including but not limited to payment of personnel, and maintenance of facilities and equipment.
According to information provided by Thompson, the increase would result in an additional yearly cost of $100 for those with an annual salary of $20,000. Those earning a salary of $50,000 would pay $250 a year and those earning a salary of $100,000 would pay $500 a year.
“Right now we have five full-time police officers. We used to have eight. Just about every law enforcement guideline will tell you that you should have at least nine or 10 full time police officers,”Cohen said.
He added that the village also doesn’t have any full time EMS.
Fire Chief Josh Brown said the new income tax wouldn’t make it possible to hire full-time EMTS, but would make it possible to be able to implement permanent part-time staff.
Right now East Palestine EMS have to miss one out of every four calls that come in due to not having enough people available, he said.
The fire department does have mutual aid agreements with the Negley and New Waterford departments.
While the fire department does have a fire levy, that money generally goes toward large dollar items like fire trucks, and not paying personnel, he added.
Village Manager Pete Monteleone said an increase could make it possible for the police department to hire another full time officer.
Police Chief James Brown III said if officers are already on calls it makes it difficult to respond to other calls when there aren’t enough police available for the village’s population.
Councilman DJ Yokley was the only one who seemed to speak out against the income tax increase.
He said he is concerned that raising taxes will only keep people from wanting to come to the village.
“We just raised water and sewer rates. This could change the dynamic of who stays and who goes,” he said, adding that residents he has spoken with are also worried about additional increases down the road.
Cohen responded that he believes the village providing “exceptional” services should be a draw for people to want to be here.
John Simon, who serves as the village’s building and zoning inspector, but wasn’t speaking in that capacity, mentioned that the village has lost more than $200,000 in income tax revenue in the last three years.
“Somehow we need to look at the businesses that we lost and look at what we can do to get those businesses back,” he said.
He added that even if the village increases taxes, if people leave, there still won’t be money for the departments.
Thompson noted that 2015 was a high income tax revenue year because of fracking.
The discussion then turned to grants, when street department employee Jerry Coblentz wondered why the village wasn’t getting many grants.
“It seems like a lot of grants are slipping through our fingers. I know it can’t go toward wages but it can go toward the general fund,” he said.
Councilman Brett Todd agreed he felt the village wasn’t doing enough to get grants, and said the village should have been working with the Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) on the water and sewer projects.
Cohen said that most grants require matching funds and if the village doesn’t have the money to pay the matching funds they can’t get the grants. He also said grant eligibility varies from community to community and that grants are awarded for specific purposes.
The meeting then took a somewhat contentious turn when employees raises were brought up.
Cohen, who sits on the union negotiating committee, and stressing the importance of the income tax increase, said that the village is currently not in a position to give employees any increases.
However, Yokley said the village has implemented 32 percent in wage increases over the last 14 years.
“We have continued to give money when we don’t have it and that is why we are in this situation,” he said.
Cohen and others said it was actually over 18 years and translates to about a 1.5 percent increase each year. Cohen and Simpson said the increases were necessary as the cost of living goes up.
Cohen told Yokley the raises were deserved, and Yokley responded that he didn’t disagree with that.