Lancaster, Powell look for funding for projects

The Columbus Dispatch – May 31, 2010

Like most communities, Lancaster and Powell are struggling to keep up with mounting infrastructure needs. But leaders in the two central Ohio cities have chosen different approaches to identify their priorities.

The Lancaster City Council is digesting a report issued last week that estimates it would cost about $50 million to meet all the needs in the Fairfield County seat over 10 years.

But there is no appetite for an income-tax increase, said Council President Ken Culver.

The fast-growing city of Powell in Delaware County, where traffic is a big issue, is considering one. City leaders might ask voters in November for an income-tax increase, from 0.75 percent to 1.5 percent, to pay for capital improvements. Residents who work outside the city would receive a 1 percent credit.

The increase would generate about $2.2 million annually for roads and other improvements in the city of about 11,500 people, said city spokesman Jeff Robinson. The current general-fund budget is about $12.1million, he said.

City officials will learn what residents think of the idea when 400 registered voters are polled this week in a telephone survey by Saperstein Associates. The city hired the Columbus company for $15,000 to survey residents in 2008 about life in Powell and what is important to them. This survey, to cost $16,000, will include similar questions, plus a few questions about a tax increase for capital improvements, Robinson said.

Asking voters to increase taxes is always a tough sell, more so in difficult economic times.

But it can work. Voters in May approved income-tax increases in Marysville, to 1.5 percent, and in Worthington and Grandview Heights, to 2.5 percent. Pataskala voters approved a new 1 percent income tax. London voters, though, rejected raising the city’s income tax to 1.5 percent.

In Lancaster, the council president appointed an 11-member volunteer Citizens Advisory Committee, which examined all city departments and operations for about five months before turning in the report.

The committee found that the level of city services has declined with lower tax collections during the recession and less funding from the state. The current general-fund budget is about $25.4 million.

Buckled streets and old firehouses are evidence of the chief needs. It would cost about $42 million to repair and maintain streets, build two replacement firehouses in the city’s growing northwest areas and construct a Municipal Court building, the report said.

The remaining $8 million in needs identified by the committee includes recommendations to hire a full-time economic-development director and fully staff the police and fire departments to the numbers recommended for a city of Lancaster’s size.

The committee identified the needs in the city of about 37,000 and what it would cost to meet them over a decade. It suggested that a 0.15 percent income-tax increase, taking the rate from 1.75 percent to 1.9percent, could be dedicated to street repair.

“We haven’t discussed a tax increase,” Culver said. “Do we have the appetite for it, are we ready for it, is the community ready for it?”

Not at this time, it appears. “There is nothing on the table, nothing planned for the fall,” he said.

The report is a starting point, identifying the level of services needed and leaving it to the elected officials to decide the priorities, the funding means and the timing, Culver said.