City Council Debates 2021 Budget, Sets Work Session for Thursday

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WARREN, Pa. – Should the City of Warren institute a minor tax increase to maintain all the services it currently offers residents, or should some departments be reduced in order to curb spending? That’s just one of the questions City Council is grappling with as it tries to set the 2021 budget, and it’s led to some spirited debates.

Council debated how to approach the budget for the third time, publicly, during their regular meeting Monday. Still at an impasse following a lengthy discussion, they set a work session for 6 p.m. Thursday in Council Chambers.

Councilman John Wortman, who has vehemently opposed a tax increase of any kind, pointed to population decline, as well as the percentage of homeless and poverty, as reason to change the way council approaches setting the budget.

“How much longer can we expect our citizens to pay for spending, we truly can no longer afford,” Wortman said. “Right now may be our best chance to stave off our continued population decline, and perhaps even to reverse the course. Why then would we revert to the same old tax and spend policies that have contributed to the decline of our community?”

The nearly 4,000 people who have left the city since 1970 “made known their thoughts about our tax and spend policies with their feet,” Wortman said.

City Manager Nancy Freenock has advocated for a minor tax increase now, instead of hitting residents with a larger burden later. She said the city will still have a positive fund balance at the end of 2021 even without a tax increase, but that would likely change drastically in 2022 and beyond.

“I understand council’s desire not to have a tax increase,” Freenock said. “And council I think, understands my position that a small one is easier to swallow. So let’s build the fund balance back up and and keep working it toward a smaller, leaner government.”

The draft budget that council will have Thursday will include a two mill tax increase, which would generate $220,000. Even if council has no intention of raising taxes, advertising the potential increase “puts everybody on notice that that’s a possibility,” Solicitor Andrea Stapleford said.

Wortman questioned advertising a potential increase if that’s not council’s true intention.

“I don’t know why we’re going to advertise a budget that says we’re going to raise taxes if that’s not the intention,” Wortman said.

“It gives us flexibility,” Councilman Gregory Fraser answered. “And you always want to have flexibility when considering the budget. I know Mr. Wortman that you will not raise taxes, you will not vote in favor of taxes, no matter what.

“I understand that, that’s fine you can say never, never, never, that’s fine,” Fraser added. “That just leads to shutting down the city.”