PORTAGE | Police and Fire merit boards were moving ahead this week to hire additional department members when they were told to stop.
Representatives of the respective departments told board members at meetings Monday and Tuesday that a hiring freeze had been imposed.
That came as a surprise, not only to board members, but to others who had not been previously told of Mayor James Snyder's direction.
"We were never told until last night there was a financial issue," said Chuck Mason, Police Merit Board president. The board was in the process of hiring two new officers.
In a written statement, Snyder said he directed department heads to wait until after the city receives its June tax draw to fill any vacancies.
"The looming U.S. Steel appeal has been settled and Portage will need to wait until it receives its property tax draw before we know the full affect," Snyder said.
City Council President Sue Lynch said she attended both meetings and didn't know about the hiring freeze until it was announced at Monday's Fire Merit Board meeting.
"We budgeted for the Police and Fire departments. As far as I know we still have the money," Lynch said. "I've been doing my homework. We have the money in the budget. As far as I know we are not in a crisis with the budget."
Snyder said, "The council and the mayor's office know full well that just because we budgeted the money for employees does not mean it will be there to pay them." He added he wants to wait 60 days before any hiring to determine the city's financial shape.
Portage Firefighters Local 3151 President Mark Vittetoe said he was unaware of the directive until this week. He said he believes the city had made an offer to a new firefighter, but that the offer had to be rescinded. He said another firefighter is due to retire in six weeks.
Vittetoe said he has not spoken to the mayor and is trying to find out why the hiring freeze was imposed. He said he's been assured that city and firefighter safety will not be affected and the vacancy would be covered by overtime.
Snyder said the U.S. Steel property tax appeal will have more than a $500,000 impact on the city's budget this year alone, with a similar impact next year.
Clerk-Treasurer Chris Stidham disagrees with the impact of the appeal. He said he estimates the impact on the city and its Redevelopment Commission will be just less than $400,000, total over the next two years. Those funds will be repaid to the steelmaker in the form of tax credits, over the next four property tax installments during the next two years.
"While we are certainly not flush with cash, I think there are certain areas we can trim without touching public safety," Stidham said.