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Village Council— Year ends with transitions

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Keeping Yellow Springs financially sound during tough economic times, adding to the local stock of affordable housing and increasing renewable energy sources dominated Village Council’s 2011 discussions.

And at the end of the year, Village government faced a time of significant transition, as Manager Mark Cundiff announced that he would be leaving to take the job of city manager in Sidney in February. The announcement postponed the ongoing search for a new assistant Village manager, and pushed back the time that Assistant Planner Ed Amrhein and Economic Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Wildman would be leaving their jobs. Council announced that its immediate priority would be finding an interim manager.

Recession lingers

In January 2011 Council announced that it would seek in May a renewal of the 2006 8.4 mill property tax levy. Previously, Council members had stated they hoped to ask for a reduced millage on the tax levy, which was set to expire at the end of 2011. However, bad economic news continued to rock the country on the municipal, state and federal level, and Yellow Springs was not immune. This year the Ohio Republican majority eliminated the estate tax, which had provided an erratic but often substantial revenue source for the Village general fund, and also reduced the state local government funds. And while Yellow Springs had weathered the recession better than many municipalities, local income tax revenues had declined.

In February Village Manager Mark Cundiff introduced a 2011 budget that cut expenses by 1.6 percent, anticipating a further decline in revenues. Council approved the budget.

The property tax levy renewal proved controversial, as opponents argued that Council had the wrong priorities and should not be rewarded with additional revenues. However, a substantial majority of villagers gave Council a strong endorsement by voting yes on the levy, which passed in a vote of about 2 to 1. The levy provides about $750,000 annually to the Village general fund, which funds most Village services, excluding utilities.

Housing stays in public eye

In January, Council moved ahead with plans to assist Home, Inc. in the construction of four single-family affordable homes on a Village-owned .07 acre plot of land on Cemetery Street. The three-phase project continued to move ahead throughout the year.

Discussion on the project had begun in October 2010, when Council President Judith Hempfling and Vice President Lori Askeland presented the proposed housing project. A controversial 2002 Village government-backed Glass Farm project that villagers voted down in a referendum had made many villagers reluctant to pursue the topic. However, years had passed, village housing prices had continued to rise, and statistics indicated that the village had become older, whiter and more affluent. Both Hempfling and Askeland had campaigned on a platform of the need for affordable housing, and said they felt the time was right to move ahead. The need for affordable housing was also the action step that had received the most votes during last year’s visioning process.

While the issue continued to stir up opposition among some, a majority appeared to support Council’s effort. A standing-room only crowd packed Council chambers in March to encourage Council to move forward, and Council later approved Home, Inc., the local land trust nonprofit, as the development partner.

A second, and more ambitious affordable housing project was proposed in July, with Home, Inc. partnering with the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, a Columbus-based affordable housing developer, to build 37 affordable apartments for seniors on the Barr property downtown. That property had been purchased by the Morgan Family Foundation and gifted to the Friends Care Community for senior apartments several years ago, but that project fell through due to funding difficulties. The Buckeye group planned to fund the project through federal tax credits.

Council gave initial approval to the general concept phase of the Barr property project in the fall. If the project — which was later refined to include 33 apartments rather than 37 — is selected to receive the tax credits, the developers will return to Council for final approval in the spring of 2012.

Energy front and center

Being a town that wants to be green when no renewable energy options are perfect continued to challenge Council members, who in 2011 approved participation in an ambitious solar energy project. The project was first discussed in early 2011, and Council moved quickly to approve it by the May deadline of the project partners, who said they needed to move fast to secure funding by the end of the year. In December, project organizers said that funding was on track, and the project was expected to move ahead.

The project partners were SolarVision, Melink, and Yellow Springs Renewable Energy. SolarVision agreed to finance and maintain an array of solar panels in exchange for a 20-year guarantee from the Village for the purchase of its solar energy. Council would also receive an upfront bonus of several hundred thousand dollars for use of Village land.

Council came close to backing away from the project in spring 2011, due to what several Council members felt were too many unanswered questions. However, many villagers turned out to urge Council to move ahead, and they did so, voting in April to approve locating the project on the Glass Farm.

The controversy surrounding the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, also showed up at Council discussions, as villagers urged Council to take a stand against the practice. Fracking involves the practice of shooting chemical-laced water into the ground to extract natural gas, and has been linked to groundwater contamination. Many villagers became energized around the issue after a Michigan gas company sought drilling rights from several landowners who live northwest of the village.

Council approved a resolution urging state leaders to declare a moratorium on fracking until more is known about the safety of the practice.

In June fracking again appeared on Council’s plate when AMP, the Village’s municipal electric cooperative, sought Village participation in a natural gas plant in Fremont. Many villagers showed up at Council meetings to express their concerns, although Council did approve the Fremont contract by 3–2, with Hempfling and John Booth voting against.

Village re-structures

In August, Cundiff proposed, at the request of Council, a re-structuring of Village government so that the Village manager’s job is less overwhelming. According to Cundiff, he had no back-up in his position, which limited his ability to take time off, and also oversaw an unreasonable number of departments. He proposed that the Village hire an assistant manager. Due to financial constraints, this move required the letting go of two current Village employees, Assistant Planner Ed Amrhein and Economic Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Wildman, who were scheduled to lose their jobs at the end of the year.

While stating their distress at having to let go current employees, Council members expressed support for Cundiff’s proposal, which they officially approved in October. Soon afterward, Cundiff alerted them that he was a finalist for a position in Sidney, Ohio. However, the re-structuring moved ahead.

In December Cundiff announced that he had been chosen for the Sidney job, and would leave Yellow Springs in February. Due to the need for stability in Village government, Cundiff stated then that Amrhein and Wildman would continue to be employed in their present positions until further notice. Council agreed to postpone the search for an assistant manager until they hired a new manager.

Adding to the considerable changes in Village government, longtime Police Chief John Grote announced in the fall that he would be leaving his post in April.


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