What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

With a tax increase on the ballot can an Ohio city shore up its finances?

In the central Ohio city of Lancaster, the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic stretched already thin public safety resources. Despite aid from the federal CARES Act, city officials say they need more revenue to fund the fire department and police next year and beyond. In the second of two reports from cities in Ohio, Hari Sreenivasan reports from Lancaster, where a campaign is underway to convince voters to raise their own taxes on Election Day.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tonight we continue our series of reports from here in Ohio on how cities are coping with funding uncertainties in the wake of COVID-19.

    It's been more than six months after the CARES Act provided some funding for cities and states to cover COVID-19-related costs. Negotiations over a new relief bill are bogged down in part over whether cities and states need more money.

    In the city of Lancaster, about 30 miles southeast of the state capital, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp decline in tax revenue. But even before the public health crisis hit, Lancaster was already in rough financial shape.

    Nine out of ten times the Lancaster Fire Department gets a call, it's for medical reasons. So when COVID-19 hit, Chief Dave Ward's men and women were on the front line and already thin resources were stretched even further.

  • Dave Ward:

    I had six or seven firefighters off with diagnosed COVID. So that put our overtime through the roof.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    By July, the department blew through its budget and reduced the number of firefighters on duty each day.

  • David Ward:

    We're an essential service. It's well, the basic tenets of living in a city. And so we were here to protect the people, but we just didn't have the resources to pay our firefighters.

  • David Scheffler:

    There's a giant wet blanket over city finances that is keeping everything down.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Republican David Scheffler is the mayor of Lancaster, and a retired accountant himself.

    To help close the budget gap, this city of about 40,000 people will receive about $2.7 million as part of the federal CARES Act—that's about two percent of the city's overall annual budget. And by law, that money all has to be used this year and for COVID-related purposes.

    But even before the pandemic hit, the city had not figured out a steady way to replace millions in lost annual revenue from the State of Ohio over the last decade. Mayor Scheffler says they've cut costs as much as possible.

  • David Scheffler:

    We're down to the nubs. At some point you're down where you can't cut any more. And that's that's the place where we are right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Lancaster is not planning on any new federal stimulus money what they are planning to do to stay within their budget is to cut services like fire and police. The only way to avoid that is by raising revenue that means raising taxes.

    This is a pretty conservative area. Not many people are real psyched about the idea of more tax.

  • Brad Hutchinson:

    No, it is not a popular subject.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do you change their mind?

  • Brad Hutchinson:

    Facts and data.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Brad Hutchinson has spent his whole life in Lancaster, owns five businesses here, including this True Value equipment rental store.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    He's also helping run a non-partisan campaign to ask voters to approve a less than half of one percent percent increase in the local income tax. It's the city's third try asking residents to voluntarily raise more revenue. Over the last year, voters have already rejected the same tax increase twice.

  • Brad Hutchinson:

    Nobody likes more tax. I pay a lot of tax. But when you look at the numbers, what I like even less is not having a police and a fire department who can respond in case of an emergency.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hutchinson points out that as the population has grown, Police in Lancaster do about twice as many runs as they did 40 years ago, while the number of officers has only slightly increased.

    The fire department does more than three times as many runs and has fewer people than it did 40 years ago.

  • Brad Hutchinson:

    You can't spend what you don't have. So they have to understand this is not, this isn't a nonsense request. If we don't get this done, it's going to hurt and it's going to hurt bad for a long time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Engine House Number One is a 120-year-old building that was originally designed for horse-drawn fire engines. And despite some modern upgrades, the station has its quirks.

  • Dave Ward:

    This has got springs from a Model T Ford. You step on it…

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fire Chief Dave Ward says the department has already cut what it can, including a round of layoffs back in 2011.

  • Dave Ward:

    If it doesn't pass and they ask me to cut the budget, it's personnel. And we would at least have to shut down one engine house and possibly two to make ends meet. And then I think the people would realize, how did we get there?

  • Floyd Frye:

    I understand the city is in need. I truly do. But at this point in time, it's just not right. I mean, I just don't have more money to give to the city right now. And to be honest with you. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Floyd Frye has lived in Lancaster for 15 years and was furloughed from his job as a warehouse supervisor for six weeks earlier this year. He says the city needs to tighten its belt, even if that means reduced public safety services.

  • Floyd Frye:

    I understand. I've lost my job before in my life. I get it. You know, I don't want that to happen to anybody. But we're in a situation where we're going to have to make some really tough decisions. And some of those decisions might include sacrifice. And I understand the sacrifice at the end of the day, you know, when you're talking about fire and police, it might mean life.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do you convince someone around here that's saying, it's just gotten so much harder to make ends meet, is this the right time to ask for a new tax?

  • David Scheffler:

    And it's harder for cities to make ends meet. So we can sympathize with that. But we're facing the same issue that a homeowner or a wage earner is facing.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And while the income tax levy will be decided by Lancaster voters in November, Mayor Scheffler still thinks there's a need for additional federal help.

  • David Scheffler:

    Our position is, sheesh, you've bailed out everybody else. You bailed out the airlines, the hospitals, small businesses. But yet we're recovering or we're, we, we are suffering from lost revenue, basically because the government shut everything down.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While "Yes for Lancaster" signs compete for front yard real estate with every other kind of political sign, and voters will have the final say, Mayor Scheffler insists that in Lancaster, this is not political. But he says that if it doesn't pass, it will be painful.

  • David Scheffler:

    City services will have to suffer. I mean, there's no choice. We can only provide what we have money to do.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest