By Sue Botos
Keeping priorities such as high levels of city service and safety with the help of community involvement and regional collaboration are the keys to keeping the city on solid ground during a time of economic challenge, according to Mayor Pam Bobst. These themes were woven throughout her State of the City address, presented at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday.
A record crowd of more than 180 turned out to hear Bobst’s annual report, during which she stated that despite state funding cuts of more than $3 million, there are no immediate plans to increase city income tax. At 1.5 percent, Rocky River has one of the lowest income tax rates in Cuyahoga County. Bobst said that income tax makes up 29 percent of the city’s income, and property tax 26 percent.
“We see improvements translated as investment in the city,” said Bobst. Despite a “slight” drop in housing valuation, Bobst said the building department issued 15,062 permits in 2011, with commercial permits doubling. At a recent City Council meeting, she announced that during the first quarter of 2012, 170 residential projects were authorized, as were 53 commercial, up from 26 at this time in 2011. She added that foreclosures were down by about half.
In the face of economic challenges such as a decrease in revenue and increase in expenditures for such items as unfunded state mandates, utility prices and rising benefit costs, Bobst said that several measures are being taken. While personnel payment made up 73 percent of the city budget, or $16.5 million, last year, she reported that the amount was reduced by $250,000 in the 2012 budget. She noted that firefighters and wastewater treatment plant workers deferred salary increases.
To preserve full-time jobs, mandatory furloughs have been initiated, as well as a reduction in part-time staff, such as maintenance and recreation workers. Bobst said that nine full-time positions have been eliminated and overtime reduced. The city got a hand from Mother Nature during this mild winter, as overtime for snow removal was reduced from $43,000 during January through April 2011 to $10,000 so far this year.
Bobst also credited volunteers, who assist with everything from the operation of the senior center to recreation programs. She said that more than 15,000 hours were donated to the senior center in 2011.
Grants and regional collaboration were also effective and well-used tools in combating economic hardships, according to Bobst. These funds were used for equipment purchase, training, infrastructure work and other projects that otherwise would not be possible. For example, Bobst said a $170,000 Surface Water Improvement Fund (SWIF) grant has been secured for stormwater demonstration projects on the City Hall campus, which will address parking lot flooding. Bobst said that this will give residents the opportunity to see the proposals in action and how they may affect their own property.
Bobst said that during a recent meeting with Gov. John Kasich, he expressed an interest in the city’s emphasis on collaboration as a way to stretch dollars. She noted that Rocky River routinely works with other communities and levels of government, as well as organizations and local businesses. One of the latest forms of collaboration being discussed by City Council is an agreement with the Cleveland Division of Water to fund more than $1.2 million in water main rehabilitation projects. (See related story.)
Finally, Bobst discussed the recent investments in the city, which will include a Whole Foods store on Detroit Road and facelifts of several Center Ridge Road properties. Bob Boland, owner of the newly opened East of Chicago Pizza on Center Ridge, told the crowd during his earlier introduction as a new chamber member that he turned down offers from other cities to come to Rocky River.
Bobst also noted the $15 million to $20 million Edwards Development project proposed for the former Rockport Shopping Center. “This is very positive and a long-overdue catalyst for the area,” she stated.
Summing up the past year, Bobst said that the many improvements were due to an “open, respectful exchange of ideas,” referring to residents as “informed, involved and awe-inspiring.”