Here are my notes from last night’s Stow City Council meeting:
First, some good news. A new industrial park is being planned for the Seasons Road / Route 8 area. The developer will submit a plan to the Planning Commission in the coming weeks.
Next, some weird news. It has not been a good year for our traffic cabinets (i.e., the metal boxes that hold our traffic light mechanisms). Two have been hit by cars. Lightning struck another. As a result, our costs to maintain and repair these cabinets has increased from about $4K-$7K per year, to about $27K per year, in 2014 and 2015.
Tax Collections – The Income Tax Department has proposed that the city outsource its collection efforts to a law firm. This is fairly standard. The law firm takes home about 30% of the funds received. Currently, the city sends letters, and in extreme cases, it takes delinquent taxpayers to small-claims court. As you can imagine, that is not terribly effective. … My main concern with a collections firm is that I want the city to be hands-on in the process, even after sending the account to collections. I don’t want our taxpayers to deal only with a lawyer who has hundreds of these cases; they should still be able to send documents that support their position to the Income Tax Department. Council unanimously approved the measure.
Capital Budget – Brian Lowdermilk made an astute proposal: that the Finance Department provide an annual capital budget to explain capital expenditures for the coming year. It would be presented to council simultaneously with the annual operating budget. The measure passed by a 4-3 vote. Costello, Pribonic and D’Antonio felt it was unnecessary for this to be legislatively enacted. Before the vote, I clarified the legislation, by amendment, such that the capital budget will include: (i) a total to be spent on neighborhood roads, (ii) a line item for any road project exceeding $100K, (iii) a line item for any piece of equipment exceeding $15K, and (iv) a line item for any storm water project exceeding $20K (the latter two were part of Lowdermilk’s original proposal). … I feel this legislation is important because, often during the year, we are presented with proposals to purchase sizable pieces of equipment, and the question naturally is: “Was this budgeted for?” The answer is always, “Yes.” But council has no real way to confirm. This is a good check-and-balance, and it also assists us in providing more transparency to residents. I don’t buy the three dissenters’ position–that council could obtain this budget by simply asking. By enacting legislation, we ensure that nobody forgets and that future administrations continue the procedure.
Salt Shortage – You have probably heard about Stow’s salt “problem.” A lot of residents approached me, asking why Stow would not purchase enough salt–is it because of budgetary cutbacks? No. It’s not. And Stow did not cut back on salt purchases. Rather, our supplier was late in delivery. And it was late in delivering to a lot of nearby communities, too. Stow was the only one to send a press release, notifying residents that we had to cope with this unavoidable shortage. The press release was aimed to help residents in their weekend planning. But please be assured, Stow is now fully equipped with enough salt to make it through the winter. We have 2,600 tons of it, which is enough to fill half of our barn.
Council will meet next on March 12.
Here are my notes from last night’s meetings:
The big news is that Finance Committee has passed forward a proposal to take bids to sell Fox Den Golf Course.
Let me backtrack to explain why:
We learned last night that the 2015 budget projects a $1.1 million shortfall between revenues and expenses. The city plans to fill the deficit by reducing existing balances in the city’s various accounts, most notably, the General Fund, which will be reduced by about $700,000. In layman’s terms, we are digging into our savings accounts by $1.1 million.
Sadly, this is nothing new. In my five years on council, a mayor has not once presented a balanced budget. The result is, we plow through our reserves, with no real long-range plan to bridge the delta between revenue and expenses. But, I must say, never has the gap reached so high as $1.1 million.
At the same time, it should be noted that the city has made some substantial cuts to expenses and has reduced the debt it carries. The mayor and council have implemented many other cost-cutting measures. The city is now implementing a LEAN program, which will almost certainly expose and identify other inefficiencies in our operations.
But there are very few pieces of low-hanging fruit remaining when it comes to budget cuts. Any new cuts that would put a serious dent in the budget deficit would likewise put a dent into the quality of services upon which Stow residents depend.
To me, Fox Den is the last low-hanging fruit.
In 2014, we made $342,768 in debt service payments relating to the golf course. We will continue to pay about the same amount each year until year 2032. While the city has been able to improve the golf course’s operational finances, please do not be fooled into thinking that the golf course makes a profit. Since the government took over Fox Den, the course has been in the red every year except for one.
But I do believe Fox Den could be profitable as a private business. And a lot of people in the golf industry have told me the same thing. Furthermore, the housing construction market has returned, and developers are looking for opportunities. We all want Fox Den to remain a golf course, but truthfully, when confronted with the realities of our budget, if we are presented with a good offer, we may not be able to afford that luxury. Simultaneously, the Planning Committee is seeking to repeal the zoning code chapter on Planned Residential Developments (PRDs). By repealing PRDs, the city could avoid Fox Den turning into a high-density housing development. This would be a priority.
So here is the Fox Den proposal, in plain English. Last night, the Finance Committee discussed and unanimously passed a proposal to seek bids to sell Fox Den for golf course/greenspace purposes only. It also discussed and unanimously passed a proposal to seek bids to sell Fox Den without such a restriction. The entire city council will vote on these proposals in March.
If passed, the city will receive two categories of bids, as described above. City council will then meet to decide which of the bids, if any, is the best. A purchase agreement will be negotiated and signed, with the contingency that the voters must approve it. The voters will then have the final say–whether the city closes the deal to sell Fox Den.
It’s not the neatest or quickest proposal, but Fox Den is a divisive topic. This is the only way, in my humble opinion, that the city has an actual opportunity to sell Fox Den with the current mayor and council. At the end of the process, we will have either unloaded Fox Den, or we will have closed the debate on whether a sale is feasible.
City council will meet next on February 26.