Portage begins long road to recovery
Written by - David C. Miller, Editor   
Wednesday, 30 September 2009 08:37
Portage’s village council took a giant step Monday night toward returning the town to financial solvency when it unanimously adopted a five-year road-to-recovery plan.
One key component of the plan is totally within council’s control — phasing out its own police department by Jan. 1.
Once a money maker in Portage’s infamous “speed trap” days, the police force has since become a financial black hole for the village. The department is projected to end the year with a $69,000 deficit — a cost that the village has no way of making up. The town itself is on track to end the year in red ink to the tune of $129,000.
Many Portage residents oppose doing away with the police force, but no one has yet come up with a way to pay for its operation.
Once the town gets its finances in order it can consider contracting with the Wood County Sheriff’s Office. Currently that cost would be $30 an hour for deputies to patrol in the town.
Other towns — including Grand Rapids and Weston — have been very satisfied with the protection they have received from the sheriff’s office after eliminating their own police departments in recent years.
The other key component of the recovery plan is clearly not within council’s control. The plan calls for placing a 1-percent income tax on the May ballot, giving council and the mayor just over half a year to convince voters that the town is worth saving by investing in its future.
As an official with the state auditor’s office advised Portage on Aug. 31: “You’ve got to weigh the services that you want with what you can pay for.”
If the voters turn down the 1-percent tax in May the village will have to cut $60,000 a year in services. Those cuts would be in addition to the elimination of the police department and other cuts that are already rolled into the recovery plan.
Portage has been operating under a state-imposed fiscal emergency since April.
Belinda Miller, chief project manager of the local government services division of the state auditor’s office, has been working with Portage officials in developing the recovery plan.
She has made it clear that the town would be dissolved if it cannot dig itself out of debt. That’s not a threat, but a statement of fact. The town’s debts are real, and its potential for increasing revenue is limited.
If the income tax would pass, then it would still take the town until 2011 to put its books in the black.
Town officials are to be commended for exploring the possibility of annexing three sizeable businesses just north of the village. But the talks are only in the preliminary stages and it would be very premature for the village to bank on that annexation being part of the road to recovery.
It’s been a long year of heated meetings for Portage officials. And if the levy fails in May there will be few options left for the village. Outside of the police department, there are no other big ticket budget items to cut.
For now, however, council and the mayor have laid the foundation for their village of the future.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 September 2009 10:27
 

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