Plea for policy change during City Council
By Matt Echelberry
Danielle Poland led a 27-minute discussion in the citizen comment portion of the Galion City Council meeting. Poland explained that she moved to Galion last October with her husband, Mike, and their two children but Mike lost his job soon after. He found another job, then got laid off one week later. Danielle cannot work and receives disability compensation, which their family has mostly been living on.
The family’s first utility bill in December was $255 (for electric, water and sewer). Poland said they struggled to pay it, the Utility Department was not willing to work with them and they had to go to Community Action and Christian Co-op for help. That evening, she said their bill due the following day was for $248. Mike started a new job on Monday and had $100 to put toward the bill. They requested a two week extension on paying the remainder of the balance but were denied by the Utility Department.
“I was on the phone for five hours yesterday trying to make sure our power doesn’t get shut off…It is so demoralizing,” Poland stated. She felt that people are struggling but the Utility Dept. is not helping, even if customers are trying to pay.
Poland said she was aggravated by all of the trouble they have gone through to pay their bills, yet not given any leeway. In a tearful plea, she asked: “What are we supposed to do? What if I lose my kids because our utilities get shut off?”
Deputy Finance Director Paul Robinson recalled the Polands’ situation. He noted that the issue is they have not lived in the city limits for at least six months. After six months of residency, special payment arrangements can be made. He said that the rules are the same for everyone in the city and he must follow policy, but did tell Poland about the Winter Crisis Program offered through Community Action.
Poland responded that she did approach the agency again, but it was unable to help this time around. She asked Council to think about the people with no electric and try to do something to help the citizens, possibly by changing relevant policies.
Robinson noted, “We do help a lot of people, but less than one percent of customers are having this problem.” He reported that last month, there were 50 percent less shut offs than last November.
Council member Roberta Wade agreed with Poland. “We do need to have some type of flexibility for people in these situations…It could happen to anybody.” Wade also agreed that Galion’s utility department is difficult to deal with.
“I’m not much for changing policy for individual people, but what does Council think of putting something on the floor to allow them to go ahead and make a payment arrangement?” Council President Gail Baldinger asked later in the discussion.
Council member Tom Fellner, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Utilities Committee, said a solution would not be that simple because actual legislation would be needed to change policy. “We’re willing to look at the policy and make sensible changes,” Fellner stated. “And I would invite citizens such as yourself to help make those changes,” he said to Poland.
Poland was supportive of that effort. “It’s not that we’re saying we’re not going to pay our bill. We had a portion of the money.” She said Council should do something to help people, and not punish the ones who are trying to pay.
Near the end of the discussion, Wade asked if a motion could be made to change the minimum residency period. Fellner was not sure if Council should act on a case by case basis, arguing that they could be there every night deciding on cases. “It’s difficult to help your situation in the short term, but we’re certainly willing to revise policy across the board,” he said.
Another citizen to address Council during the meeting was Andy Daniels. He handed out a projection chart to Council, based on figures from the 2013 Five Year Recovery Plan that Council passed recently. Daniels pointed out projections for the city’s electric fund, which showed net operating losses over the coming years.
According to Daniels, because of those losses the city would be bankrupt by 2018. “What can Council do to make changes in the budget to fix this?” he asked.
City Manager Gene Toy explained that the projections are based on the Five Year Recovery Plan, but the plan does a poor job of predicting what actually happens. In any given year, the predictions of an account do not match with the actual end balance for that year. “The plan assumes you will spend all money that is appropriated, but realistically that does not happen,” Toy concluded.
“What good is it then? Why do a Recovery Plan?” Daniels asked.
Toy responded that a Recovery Plan is done because a municipality is required to when under fiscal emergency, but he agreed that it is “an exercise in futility.”
The third and final citizen to speak that evening was Don Faulds, who accused city officials of still not following the City Charter. He reminded everyone that the city government is still under the Charter until the end of May.
Faulds pointed out Section 5.04: Department of Finance, which states that the Director of Finance “is appointed by the City Manager, subject to approval by motion of the Council by a majority vote of its members.”
Faulds explained that Finance Director Karen Walters resigned on Jan. 4, yet no one has replaced her. He credited Deputy Finance Director Paul Robinson for doing a great job,
putting in a lot of extra work, extra hours, and handling the extra pressure. “Mr Robinson has handled the city finances for five weeks, yet has not been given any authority from Council.”
Faulds said the City should take immediate action to correct the issue, as city finances are important “given Galion’s history.”