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Year in Review

Year in Review 2014: Village Council

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CBE yearlong focus
The question of whether Village government should fund the infrastructure for the Center for Business and Education, or CBE, dominated Village Council business, along with local politics, throughout much of 2014. In November, a citizen referendum brought the matter to a close when villagers voted almost two to one against the public funding.

The CBE issue kept the question of how best to boost the local economy in the forefront of many villagers’ discussions throughout the year.

In January of 2014, after several months of discussion, Council had voted to move ahead with the CBE funding. The issue had landed on Council’s plate several months earlier after Community Resources, the main CBE backer, came to Council for funding after delays on the project led to the loss of a federal grant intended to pay for the project’s infrastructure.
While the CR initially requested about $643,000, the amount had increased to around $1 million on the advice of bond consultants, with a longterm investment of $1.6 million if the project took 20 years to pay off. The January vote was 3–1, with Council President Karen Wintrow recusing herself due to a question of conflict of interest, which was later deemed nonexistent by the Ohio Board of Ethics.

However, the controversial issue moved off Council’s table just before the end of January when Village Solicitor Chris Conard announced that a procedural error was found. The CBE design had never been formally reviewed by Planning Commission, and that step needed to take place before Council could move ahead.

The CBE issue came back to Council in June, after the Planning Commission review. This time around, Council voted 3–2 to move ahead with the project, with Wintrow, Brian Housh and Gerry Simms in favor and Marianne MacQueen and Lori Askeland opposing the funding.
In August CBE opponents presented the Greene County Board of Elections with 465 valid signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on the topic, far more than the 310 signatures required. Consequently the issue was placed on the November ballot.
The CBE issue proved robust, and discussions heated up as the election came nearer. Supporters said the CBE was the best, and perhaps the only, road to economic growth in the village, since it would provide space for new businesses or for current businesses to expand. Opponents stressed their doubts about the viability of the project, since many area business parks are struggling.

In November, public funding for the CBE went down at the polls, with 1,147 villagers voting against the funding and 649 voting in favor.

At year’s end, Community Resources had not announced its intentions for the project.

Manager search launched
In January, Village Council announced it would hire Management Partners of Cincinnati to consult on the search for a new Village manager to replace Laura Curliss, who had resigned in September 2013. Council members Housh and Simms agreed to oversee the process, and a citizen search committee was formed.

In March, Housh reported that the search had elicited a robust response, with 60 applicants for the job. The committee and Council narrowed the group, and three finalists — Patti Bates, the administrator of Williamsburg, Ohio; David Elmer, former administrator of Pierce Township near Cincinnati; and Robert Kellogg, former manager of Sewell’s Point, Fla. — were brought to the village the end of May for two days of intensive interviews with Village staff, Council and villagers.

Bates emerged as the unanimous choice of Council and the committee. She was chosen, according to Wintrow, for her straightforward and low-key management style. Bates began the job in July.

Water plant moves ahead
For more than two years Council has considered how best to address the Village’s aging water plant — whether to build a new plant, refurbish the old, or purchase water from Springfield. In 2014 the topic continued to occupy Council, which sought consultants’ opinions on the cost and consequences of each option.

After receiving the consultants’ reports, Council chose to move forward with building a new plant that has the capacity to remove manganese and iron from the water, and possibly to soften water as well. The cost was estimated at about $3.5 million.

In November, Council and a search committee chose HNTB, a large national firm that has offices in Cincinnati and Columbus, as the consulting engineering firm to move ahead with the first phase of construction. Council members stated they chose HNTB because it had the most experience with the design/build process of construction, which Council selected for the new plant.

Budget concerns grow
Throughout 2014 Council members expressed concern about continued deficit spending in the Village budget. Expenses exceeded revenues for the second straight year in the general fund, with about $399,000 in deficit spending by year’s end. In April Council approved a 15 percent hike in water rates but a continued decline in water usage led to a growing deficit in that fund. After new Manager Bates came on the job, she asked all Village crews to reduce their operating costs by at least 3 percent, and all did so, with most making far larger cuts.

However, at the end of the year Council members stated that for the first time in many years, the Village will in 2015 dip into its general fund to cover needs for the enterprise, or utility, departments, which are intended to fund themselves through utility fees. Specifically, about $800,000 will come out of the general fund next year to fund two urgent water projects, including the beginning phase of the water plant construction.

While the general fund has a healthy surplus of $1.6 million going into 2015, next year’s budget includes deficit spending that is projected to bring the surplus down to $670,000 by next December, a far smaller surplus than in recent years.

At a December meeting, Council President Wintrow said that Council will focus in 2015 on finding ways to make the Village budget more sustainable.

Streetscape half finished
In April, Council set its priorities for 2014 capital projects, with the downtown streetscape project leading the list. Begun several years ago but never completed, the project aimed to repair subpar sidewalks, remove old pear trees, bury electrical lines and replace old streetlights with newer, more energy-efficient lights on the east side of Xenia Avenue. The work, by Durst and Company, along with the Village crew, ended up taking place later than expected and sidewalk construction hindered holiday sales, several shopkeepers said. However, the project was finished by Thanksgiving, as promised, and holiday lights circled the new streetlamps.

At year’s end, there were no specific plans to move the project to the other side of Xenia Avenue.

Other 2014 capital project priorities were repairs to the skate park, a new library roof and the construction of a shelter for Village equipment at the Sutton Farm. By year’s end, the Village had approved funding for all projects, which were expected to begin soon.

Broadband encouraged
Throughout 2014, Council heard from Springs-Net, a group of villagers who are promoting the value of municipal broadband in the village. Council agreed in November to explore joining New Century Cities, a national organization that offers free advice and consulting on broadband issues.

Streuwing suit dropped
In May the Ohio Appeals Court sided with Ken and Betheen Struewing in their lawsuit against the Village over the issue of access to Village utilities. Judges had ruled three times in favor of the Struewings, and at this point Council agreed to drop the case, which had cost the Village about $144,000 in legal fees.

Solar array approved
In July Council denied an appeal by a group of citizens, mainly neighbors of Antioch College, who sought to stop the college’s construction of a solar array on the former college golf course. Antioch College hopes to be the first college in the country to meet all of its energy needs with renewable sources.

Musicians agreement passed
In the spring Council heard from several downtown shopowners and local musicians about rising tensions between them. Some shopowners felt that buskers played too long at one spot, while the musicians asserted their need to make money.

Council tasked the Public Arts Commission to find a solution.

In the summer Council launched a pilot project based on a Portland, Ore. ordinance that requires buskers to change locations after an hour of playing. While some musicians opposed the new measure, Council gave final approval in September.

Wastewater plant honored
In September Village Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Joe Bates and staff members Brad Ault and Richard Stockton of the Village wastewater treatment plant were honored by the Ohio Water Environment Association for nine years of a perfect safety record.

Environmental Commission
After a hiatus of several years, the Environmental Commission was reconstituted in the fall of 2014, at the urging of Council member Marianne MacQueen, who noted the growing number of environmental issues coming before Council.

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Year in Review 2014: Village Council

by Diane Chiddister