By MORGAN MANNS
The city of Fostoria was recently named the 19th safest city in the state.
However, that safety is in jeopardy, according to officials, and lies in the hands of Fostoria’s voters.
During a two-hour voters forum Wednesday evening, representatives with the city as well as Fostoria’s fire and police departments expressed concerns for the safety of the city if voters don’t pass a five-year, 6-mill property tax levy on Nov. 7.
The Fostoria Woman’s Club hosted the event as a way to educate community members on area candidates and local issues on the upcoming ballot and allow citizens the opportunity to ask officials questions.
While the event was free and open to the public, only about 15 community members were in attendance, none of which voiced opposition to the levy.
Officials say the levy, which was built into the city’s five-year financial recovery plan, would generate nearly $3.5 million in general fund revenue by 2021 and play a large role in getting Fostoria out of fiscal emergency.
If the levy dies at the polls, officials have said the only alternative would be “fairly significant layoffs,” in the form of four police officers, two firefighters and two police clerks.
“My biggest fear is that I hear people saying that this is nothing more than a scare tactic,” Fostoria police Chief Keith Loreno said. “You’re darn right you ought to be scared. Because the reality is, that 19th safest city, could change very quickly.”
The city of 13,449 people is faced with the same bad guys, same domestic calls, same scams as other cities, although maybe not at the same level.
Loreno said his guys respond to more than 12,700 incidents each year. The fact that the number of police officers protecting the streets of Fostoria and responding to these calls could continue to shrink, leaves him worried about the safety of not only the citizens but of his officers.
In 2000, the city had 28 officers available just to patrol the streets, according to Loreno. Today, Fostoria has 20 officers, including the chief. Two of those officers work inside the schools as school resource officers and another serves as a drug detective.
“We do not have the staffing to maintain enough persons on duty to cover the streets of Fostoria,” he said in response to the attacks on accrued overtime. “Everyone in my division is doing multiple jobs. Everyone does a little bit of everything.”
Fraternal Order of Police union President Cory Brian also expressed his concern for the low staffing levels.
“Staffing levels at this point are very low,” Brian said. “Without this levy, I honestly don’t know how safe I would feel as a police officer. I would be concerned about whether or not I’m going to make it home to my children and whether or not my partner is going to make it home to their children.
“Police officers, EMTs and firefighters, we’re scared that we’re not going to make it home. There are no scare tactics. It really is what’s going to happen. This levy, when you break it down, is for the future of our city at this point. I implore you guys, please, vote for the levy.”
If passed, Loreno said the levy will help bring back three of the positions the department has lost.
Likewise, the levy could bring four fire personnel to the city’s fire department, according to interim fire Chief Brian Herbert, which would “get the city safe and back to where it should be.”
“There’s talk of going to a volunteer fire department “¦ If you want to put the final nail in the coffin of this city,” he said, noting businesses won’t come into town and insurance ratings will increase. “I know (four) doesn’t really sound like a huge number but that will put one more guy on the street (at a time) and the level of care will increase tremendously.”
In 2001, the fire department had 18 members and two chiefs. When the city took over EMS services from a private entity, six additional personnel were hired with three more hired as EMS revenue started coming in.
The call volume increased from about 600 calls to nearly 3,000 calls per year. Call volume stays the same, at 2,268 thus far this year, with 15 employees including the chief.
Herbert said Findlay receives about the same number of calls with four stations and more than 60 guys.
“Your money is not being mismanaged,” he said, explaining the majority of the department’s overtime is due to multiple emergency calls at a time. “We average seven-and-a-half calls per day with pretty much three guys on duty.”
Community members had few questions for the officials, regarding the number of additional personnel the levy will bring in, Fostoria’s response to the recent fatal fire on Ohio 18 and how much the city’s debt would be paid in the second year.
The latter question was referred to city Auditor Steve Gardner who was not present at the forum. Officials in attendance couldn’t provide an exact answer and requested citizens seeking the answer to call the city building to be pointed in the right direction.
FOSTORIA CITY COUNCIL
Individuals running for a seat on city council also attended the forum, sharing information about themselves as well as why they want a chance to represent the city.
Vying for Ward 1 representation, Paula Dillon, an incumbent since 2010, and Jonathan Puffenberger were both in attendance.
Dillon provided those in attendance with cost-saving measures the city has, explaining “nothing is being mismanaged.”
They include actions such as eliminating the city treasurer’s position, the assistant fire chief position and the clerk from the fire department; reducing the number of officers and firemen as well as the law director’s staff; removing healthcare plan from council; reducing liability insurance premiums; changing phone provides; not offering pay increases to elected and non-union officials since 2008; and more.
Another handout she provided explained the total amount of lost funds “” between state reductions and income loss — since 2007 is $2,390,880.55.
Dillon began her tenure on city council as one of four women, but now is the “last woman standing.”
“This term has been stressful,” she said, noting the city’s fiscal emergency status. “There should be 10 people up here speaking. I’m still here because I care about the city.”
The Fostoria native said she supports the levy “100 percent.”
Her opponent, Puffenberger, said he also supports the levy.
Born and raised in Fostoria, he said he has seen the city at the good times and the bad and everything in between.
“As a community we face a struggle, a struggle for survival,” he said. “The city is at a crossroads. We either continue with some of the ways of the past that have brought us literally to the brink of failure or come together as a community to find creative solutions that will make Fostoria and all its residents prosper.”
As a member of city council, he said he would make it his priority to understand every aspect of the city budget, immerse himself in bringing jobs back to the community and work to use tax dollars the most efficient way possible.
Ward 4 representative Tom Lake was not in attendance.
His seat on council is contested by lifelong Fostorian Mike Spencer.
Spencer said he moved out of the state for about 15 years before returning to Fostoria, at which point he noticed things had changed. Businesses had left and funds were dwindling.
However, he said unless citizens attend council meetings, they may not know everything that’s going on.
“People complain on Facebook or make stuff up but unless you attend a council meeting to really see what’s going on, you can’t complain,” he said. “This didn’t happen overnight. It’s not going to get taken care of overnight.”
He has said he is already starting to speak with businesses to bring them into town, which his goal whether he makes a seat on council or not.
He also voiced his support of the levy.
While running unopposed for the president on city council, Steve Kauffman made an appearance at the forum and provided a little background on his reasons for running.
The band director at Fostoria Junior/Senior High School, Kauffman told Keckler several years ago to let him know if there was anything he could do. While he meant more along the lines of having the band perform as grand openings in town, the mayor had something else in mind.
Keckler approached him for the position of interim council president when the late Dave Clark fell ill.
“If you know Eric, he’s persuasive at times and the next thing I know, here I was,” Kauffman explained. “I don’t want to be the hypocrite that has opinions about everything but when given the opportunity to get involved, doesn’t get involved.”
No questions came before the candidates.
Council’s third-ward seat will be left vacant by Jon Hay. No one has shown an interest in filling the position.
FOSTORIA CITY SCHOOL BOARD OF EDUCATION
Other contested seats on the upcoming ballot include three seats on Fostoria City Schools Board of Education.
Two of the four candidates were not present during the meeting “” current incumbents Anthony Thompson and Pat Grine “” however, Grine, who had to work, left a statement which Kinn read aloud.
In his written statement, Grine explained the current board has committed to the “hard work, dedication and vision of making Fostoria City Schools the best school system around.” He said the district will continue to move in the right direction if people are in place who also have that vision.
Board member Sharon Stannard shared Grine’s sentiments.
She stated that the function of a school board member should be to hire the best superintendent and the best treasurer available, which she said she believes they did, as well as make policies that will make the school system work in a successful way.
“The current board works very well together,” she said, noting they do have disagreements that they work through. “We really want to see our high school built up and running and everything else moving in the right direction.”
She shared some of her background in education as well as her history with the school district, where she worked for 30 years before retirement.
“I believe my history with the schools is valuable as we try to preserve as much of the legacy from the past as we can,” she said, adding, “I can relate to every segment of this community. I believe the cultural and economic diversity enables us to give our students the very best opportunities to be prepared for life wherever they go.”
Fostoria resident Heidi Kauffman, who has thrown her hat into the ring in hopes of gaining a seat on the board, said one of the reasons she chose to run was because she had sent emails to board members with no responses.
“I’m not going after anyone in particular, I just want a spot. I just want to be heard,” she said. ”
She shared her reason for running was two-fold: to establish a master calendar in the district and to increase parent involvement.
She said two things have been planned on top of another already this year. She hopes to prevent incidents like that from occurring again in the future by ensuring all events are listed on a master calendar for everyone to see.
She also said it’s hard for parents to become involved in the schools because of policies such as the need for a background check.
“Parents aren’t even allowed to walk their kids to their classrooms,” she said, adding she would walk her children into the building every day when she lived in Columbus. “I built a rapport with those teachers and they felt comfortable asking for my help.
“We don’t have that rapport here. We have parents who just drop their kids off. They don’t event come in and watch their own kids (during events such as band concerts). “¦ We’re busy, I get it, but they’re our kids and we have to make time for our kids.”
No questions came before the candidates.
Two other levies were also discussed during the forum: the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board’s .7-mill replacement levy and the Seneca County Commission on Aging’s .3-mill renewal levy.
The Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties needs voters in Seneca County to approve a .7-mill replacement levy this November to continue the work it’s been doing in the community.
Voters in Seneca County approved a .8-mill levy in 2008 and renewed it in 2012. However, a legal issue with the Ohio Department of Taxation has prevented the levy from going up for renewal again.
Due to the legal technicality, the ballot language will tag the new levy as an “additional” one, even though the current .8-mill levy will expire at the end of the year.
Mircea Handru, executive director, said funds generated from the levy account for 50 percent of the agency’s operating budget, which includes in-school counseling and education, crisis intervention training for area first responders and 24/7 crisis emergency services.
Last year, the agency responded to 209 face-to-face emergency calls in Fostoria with 46 percent of those individuals hospitalized locally.
“One hundred percent of what we do is funded through this levy,” Handru said. “The reality is, we’re concerned about the services for the children. We won’t be able to fund any of (these services) if this levy doesn’t pass.”
If passed, the levy would cost the homeowner of a $100,000 property approximately $24.50 annually or $2.04 a month.
If approved, the levy would commence in 2017, to be collected in 2018.
Bryan Glover, director of the Seneca County Commission on Aging, also spoke during the event, providing information on the commission’s renewal tax levy.
The levy will allow the commission to maintain and expand its services and facilities to the community.
The .3-mill levy was first passed in 1999 and has been renewed three times more, providing the commission a foundation from which to build, according to Glover.
In 1999, the Seneca County Commission on Aging served 30,000 meals. That number has increased to 247,000 meals last year.
In addition to making meals available for senior citizens throughout the county, the agency provides transportation to medical appointments, grocery stores, shopping malls, banks, laundromats, beauty salons and more.
If passed, the levy would cost a homeowner of a $100,000 property approximately $10.50 annually or 88 cents a month.
Agency officials have stated the renewal levy will not raise property taxes and will not cost homeowners anything additional. They state for every tax dollar generated through the levy, the agency brings in $7.50 from outside sources.
“We’ve been able to expand services, grow and offer more and more services all built on that foundation,” he said. “Our goal is never to look at that as a means to grow services rather as a foundation for our responsibility to continue to figure out how to grow services.”
If approved, the levy would commence in 2018 to be collected in 2019.