Dayton next year plans to stop funding an ombudsman office it has supported for about 50 years to cut costs at a time when the city projects millions of dollars in revenue losses due to remote work.
The city’s decision will harm a vital independent agency that investigates and tries to resolve citizens’ complaints against government agencies, said Diane Welborn, who has served as the Dayton-Montgomery County ombudsman for 22 years.
“I sincerely hope that this decision will be reversed because our people will suffer,” she said.
But Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said the city’s mediation center will handle the office’s cases at lower costs and the city must take action to prepare for future budget challenges.
“The growth we have experienced in 2021 is largely transitory, and will not be sustained,” she said. “In fact, our research suggests we are likely to lose between $10 million to $20 million in annual tax revenue from the structural shift in the economy.”
Earlier this month, the Dayton City Commission approved a $50,000 contribution agreement with the ombudsman office, also called the joint office of citizen complaints.
The city does not plan to give the office funding next year.
The Dayton-Montgomery County ombudsman office, which is expected to serve about 10,000 people this year, is the only office of its type in the state of Ohio, Welborn said.
“Our office is the only free option for residents who have a problem or complaint with a government agency,” she said.
The ombudsman office often helps residents who have spent hours on the phone with government agencies without any success to get their issues resolved, Welborn said.
Without the office’s assistance, many people would would lose access to Social Security and food stamp assistance they need and are entitled to, she said.
“When citizens are knocking on the door of government agencies for assistance and there’s no response, citizens understandably feel anger, helplessness and despair,” she said.
Welborn implored the city to restore funding to the office, which she says is an impartial entity that investigates citizens’ complaints in a fair way to achieve a fair result.
The ombudsman’s 11-person staff has three employees who help citizens with complaints against city, township, state and federal government agencies, she said.
The office received about $155,745 in funding last year from the city, Montgomery County and the Dayton Board of Education. The office also gets separate funding for a long-term care ombudsman program.
But Dickstein said the COVID-19 crisis has created unprecedented financial uncertainty for the city.
Dayton’s general fund revenues have seen surprisingly vigorous growth this year, but Dickstein said this is not expected to last because many people are working from home and may not return to the office.
About three-fourths of the city’s general fund revenues come from income taxes, but as many as one in four people who used to work in the city may work from home for the foreseeable future, according to some estimates.
Dayton faces a significant fiscal threat because of the structural shift in how and where people work, Dickstein said, and the city has not filled open positions and has frozen wages to help reduce pressure on the budget.
“We regret that we have been forced to take this action and truly value our long-term relationship with the ombudsman,” Dickstein said.
The city will use staff and volunteers at its mediation center to try to resolve issues and disputes that have been handled by the ombudsman office, she said.
The mediation center should be able to shoulder a sizable increase in its caseload, she said.
Last year, the mediation center received 2,300 cases from city departments, neighborhoods and county agencies and intervened and helped resolve about 950 cases, Dickstein said.
The Dayton mediation center resolves cases at a much lower cost than when cases are contracted out to the ombudsman, she said.
The ombudsman’s office disputes this and claims some numbers the city manager recently shared are incorrect.
Dayton City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild said it’s crucial that the mediation center provide the same services as the ombudsman.
Fairchild said he had to rely on safety-net assistance following the bicycle crash that left him paralyzed.
He said it was a “bureaucratic nightmare” navigating the program and receiving help.
“The people who the ombudsman help are the most vulnerable in our community,” Fairchild said.
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