Amherst Citizens, City Council, and members of the press,
Welcome to the 2019 State of our City Address. I have been extremely honored to serve our community this being my 4th year as Amherst’s Mayor. Thank you for that opportunity, and I am excited at the prospect of serving another 4.
If you have learned anything about me at all over these past years, it’s that I am not one who talks just so I can hear myself speak. Therefore, I when I speak it’s normally short and to the point. In reviewing last year, and beginning to plan for next year, the challenge I faced in preparing tonight’s State of the city was how am I going to keep this report complete and informative without it being too long. It will be difficult to talk about all of it in the time allowed during a council meeting.
Together we accomplished so much, and by continuing to work transparently and as a team, I believe the best is yet to come! I will now share with you my annual State of the City report.
The state of our City continues to be strong. Let’s begin with our financial strength. As I have previously stated, Residents rightly expect the City to stay within its budget, and only spend within its means, just as the residents do at home. I made that pledge, and will continue to keep that promise. Last year, I presented my 3rd balanced budget. I am pleased to announce we stayed well within the approved 2018 budget. The City finished the year 2018 in the black!
Today I’m going to address the city’s financial health in two different categories: Special/Revenue Accounts and General Fund Accounts.
The General Fund is used for anything that is not associated with a Special Fund. The General Fund is the funding source for all administrative functions and general operations of the City. We can best describe the City’s General Fund’s financial health in two simple terms: Income and Spending. The City continues to provide its residents with high quality services and excellent safety forces, while adhering to our budget and by not spending more than we have. That sums up the spending part. Now let’s talk about income. The primary source of the City’s income comes from the taxes our residents pay. An important part of this income will soon be in the hands of our residents. A large portion of our City’s success is due to the ½ percent income tax renewal that will be on the ballot on May 7th. The City has been responsible and frugal with your tax dollars and I ask you, our residents, to continue to support this very important renewal tax levy. Remember, this is not a tax increase it is simply a renewal of our present tax which appears on the ballot every 10 years and is the same renewal our residents approved 10 years ago.
This renewal supports the annual street maintenance program and the general fund. Without its passage there would not be funds to repair our streets and there would need to be cuts in our service departments and our safety forces. Over the life of this levy the city has been able to use these dollars to fund a vast majority of street repair, repaving, curbing and street upgrading projects. Applying for grants such as OPWC and NOACA helps us spread those dollars even farther.
City Council has already approved a portion of this year’s street and infrastructure improvements program, and there is more to come. I will be presenting an OPWC project for funding for the much needed improvements at the “S curves” on North Main St. and the N. Main St. Cooper Foster Park Rd. intersection. Before work begins, the residents who live in this area will be invited to a meeting to present the project and discuss how it will affect them. It appears all work will take place in the public right of way, and no private property will be affected. Bramhall Engineering is preparing the bid packets and we will be advertising them soon. This is going to be a busy road construction season. Along with the 2 aforementioned projects, there are other projects already under way.
The railroad is working on the Milan Avenue underpass. Road abutments and the concrete walls alongside the roadway are being improved. Construction is expected to last 3 months. Traffic will be maintained, and the contractor has agreed to keep the area safe for pedestrians to pass under the bridge. This is not a city funded project, but we will continue to monitor its progress.
The project that will certainly affect all of us involves Cooper Foster Park Road from State Route 58 east to our eastern city limits. This is one of our busiest commercial districts in the City. This project has been a long time coming and is much needed. During construction, one way traffic from west to east will be maintained, and all businesses will be accessible though out the entire project. Upon completion, it will add a third lane and include storm water improvements. I am asking that you please continue to support all the businesses in the construction zone. Just plan for a few extra minutes of travel time to get there.
Soon construction will continue on North Main St. from the 5-Points north to Sunrise Drive. This project is part of the improvements that were approved last year. This will begin with a month of storm water improvements then street repaving to follow.
Our Street rehab program is successful, Our safety forces are fully staffed, our city buildings are sound, and the city administration is appropriately funded due in part to these much needed tax dollars. My administration continues to do its part to spend wisely, and provide the services you as residents deserve and rightfully expect. Please do your part and support this renewal levy.
The Police Department is one of the city’s important services supported by the general fund. The 2018 Annual Report of Amherst Police Department will be published and available by the end of March. That report will include some of the following:
- Opioid related issues still remain a concern.
- Theft related crimes, which are often related to opioid abuse, saw a slight increase. To counter this, the police have escalated their efforts to conduct business walk-throughs at various high-theft businesses. In 2018, officers conducted over 300 business walkthroughs, over 200 school walkthroughs and over 2300 vacation house checks.
- There was a decrease of burglary related crimes in 2018.
- There was a 10% increase of motor vehicle accidents from 2017, with a 33% increase of injuries related to these crashes.
The police department, along with the rest of the city obtained a new phone system as well as a new phone recorder system.
Due to retirements, the police department swore in new replacement officers in 2018. These officers underwent intensive field training for several months.
Sadly, one significant event involved Officer Gene Ptacek who was shot in the line of duty on May 31, 2018. Officer Ptacek spent the next 55 days in the hospital undergoing numerous surgeries and complications resulting from his injuries. We wish Officer Ptacek continued healing as he faces one more major surgery in the next several weeks. The trial for the alleged shooter began February 20, 2019 and is expected to last the next few weeks.
In cooperation with the Amherst City Schools, a second School Resource Officer will be assigned to the school district. One SRO will be assigned to the High School and Nord “Campus” and the other to the Junior High and new elementary school “campus.” Both will work with the schools to address school safety concerns throughout the entire Amherst School system.
The Police Department has received several grants from the Ohio Department of Public Safety for the 2019 fiscal year. The grants will pay for extra officers to conduct high visibility enforcement and address specific offenses like; repeat offenders for driving while intoxicated, seatbelt violations, as well as state and community highway safety. The enforcement will happen at random and with some specific times throughout 2019.
The Police Department will continue to strive for an even higher degree of excellence and will remain dedicated to the needs of the community.
The Fire Department had a very busy 2018, and continues to provide exceptional emergency response services due in large part to its well-trained personnel and the equipment it uses. With the passage of the fire levy last year, we were able to replace four of the department’s smaller vehicles and upgrade the fire turn-out gear the firemen wear, this allowed the City to be in compliance with the Bureau of Workers Compensation guidelines for all Fire Department personnel.
Fire Department grants were applied for and awarded totaling three hundred, thirty two thousand dollars ($332,000.00), this allowed for upgrading vehicle radios, providing cancer restraining barrier hoods and gloves for the firefighters.
A 3 year renewal contract with Amherst Township was agreed upon to provide a portion of the township emergency services. This contract will support fire protection and the first responder program for the township areas.
As required by the Bureau of Workers Compensation Phase 1 of the fire station’s apparatus room exhaust system has been completed.
Four (4) firefighters retired in 2018. Each member had over 25 years of experience. We appreciate the dedication and the devotion they brought to the department and the residents of the City of Amherst.
The Amherst Fire Department ended 2018 having serviced 420 fire calls and 293 First Responder calls.
This year (2019) the Fire Department will repaint the outside of the building, and replace the flooring in the dispatch office, Chief’s office and the conference room.
To comply with the Bureau of Workers Compensation requirements the City will install electric wall vents for Phase 2 of the apparatus room exhaust; and convert a janitor’s closet into a men’s shower room.
The City will continue to apply for grants to help defray the costs of the equipment the department uses. A fifteen thousand dollar ($15,000.00) grant through the State Fire Marshall to provide a turn-out gear drying rack. The Ohio EMS grant for an additional Lucus Device. And a sixty five thousand dollar ($65,000.00) FEMA grant for all new rescue tools.
This year will bring 2 or 3 retirements in the Fire Department. We are currently interviewing candidates to replace those members.
We will continue to work to enhance technology in the Fire Department to better serve its members and the public.
2018 was also an exceptionally busy year for the Building Department. In addition to more than 1,000 miscellaneous residential building permits being issued, the department also issued 68 new home permits. This resulted in over 2,400 inspections and provided more than twenty four thousand dollars ($24,000.00) to the Parks Department and seventy four thousand dollars ($74,000.00) to the Utility Department in the form of water and sewer impact fees. Although Northpointe Estates development was completed in 2018, new home construction is expected to continue to be strong in 2019 with the start of construction at The Reserve at Beaver Creek and the 3rd and final phase at The Preserve at Quarry Lakes.
Commercial construction continued to be strong throughout 2018 with Nordson Corporation completing significant renovations to several buildings at their Amherst campus, the Amherst Exempted Village Schools completed a long planned HVAC upgrade at the high school and started construction on the new pre-K through 3rd grade building . 2018 also welcomed the long awaited start of the Central School renovation also scheduled for completion in 2019.
In addition to the typical responsibilities of the Building Department, the Safety-Service Director tasked the department with executing the 2018 sidewalk program as approved by Council. 44,000 square feet of sidewalks were removed and replaced along with upgrading 61 crosswalks. As the 2019 sidewalk program begins, we are working to improve the processes from the 2018 sidewalk program to limit the disruption to the residents and property owners with the ultimate goal of improving the walkability within the City.
The City’s technology improvements continue due to the success of our recently approved IT department. Last year, we completed connectivity between all city properties with the installation of the city owned fiber network. The fiber network connects all major buildings which allows consolidation of past and current services, implement new city-wide systems and open up future opportunities in data sharing that was not previously possible.
One of the first benefits of the fiber network was the implementation of a new city-wide network-based phone system. In addition to better communications and features for all employees, the new phone system reduced the number of independent and aging phone systems from seven to one, eliminated over 30 physical phone lines, and reduced our monthly telephone costs by over one thousand five hundred dollars ($1,500.00) per month. Future reduction in costs will happen this coming year as we utilize the network and technology to eliminate the remaining analog phone lines.
A new high-definition broadcast system was implemented within council chambers at City Hall and began recording and broadcasting the first meetings last month. Some of the benefits of the new system includes much better video quality, live internet streaming which makes the live meetings available to residents, and archived meetings that are both indexed by agenda item and searchable by keywords.
The City’s new website was developed in house and went live in the middle of February. In addition to a fresh and clean appearance, the new website is finally mobile responsive, and searchable. If you have not seen it, you should check it out.
This year we will be implementing the long-needed upgrade to the City’s financial and utility billing software. Most of the benefits that will be realized internally to the city include an electronic and collaborative budgeting process, electronic purchase order management, all types of reporting, and more.
From an IT perspective, the AMI utility metering system, implemented in conjunction with the utilities department this year, uses gateway data collection devices that are connected to city servers over the city fiber network and cellular communication. Utility usage Data collected is stored in servers and interfaced to the current utility billing system. This new metering system is nearly complete. There is already more than 10,000 meters installed and operating, leaving less than 200 water meters to complete the system. This has been a great partnership with Eaton Corporation. I am extremely proud of the fine part our own utility workers have played in this process. This would not have been possible without them.
Utility bills will have a new look soon. We are discontinuing the postcards and switching to a full-page layout to provide more information to the consumer, including historical usage of services, and other information that will be useful.
The Utility Departments such as the Sewer, Water and Electric Departments are examples of revenue accounts. They are meant to and do generate their own funds, and do not rely on tax dollars nor are they subsidized by the general fund.
Although these utility funds are sound, they will not remain healthy without some rate adjustments that need to be made soon. The electric rate needs the most help, and the capital expenditure study completed by Courtney and Associates supports that. The study has made the suggestion to raise rates to prevent running the electric department into a deficit. Last year, the city implemented electric rate adjustments to combat the inevitable deficit that was being predicted. To say the least, this did not go as well as expected.
The electric rate adjustment along with the new meters being installed caused quite the stir among residents. My advice would be, to any other city administrator, if you plan on a complete meter change out program, do not change the meters and adjust rates at the same time. It’s not going to go well. This is what we learned and how we will do it better this time.
Residents voiced concerns as to the accuracy of the new electric meters. The City immediately had an evaluation performed on many of the installed meters. All the meters that were tested fell within industry standards. As a matter of fact, there were none that even came close to falling out of specification standards. To further assure the new meters were functioning properly, and to be able to test them ourselves in the future, the city purchased RM17 electric meter testing equipment. The Electric Department has been trained to test and evaluate the new meters. Customers may rest assured that these meters are recording Kilo watt usage correctly, and when a concern arises the City now has the equipment to check it properly.
The Ohio revised code, and Amherst codified ordinance that govern utility rate adjustments are somewhat conflicting, and Amherst Codes are not clear as to the authority to adjust rates in all circumstances. I will be tasking City Council with preparing clear and concise legislation to clarify the Amherst Codified Ordinance so this doesn’t ever occur again.
The electric rate still needs to be adjusted and needs to be adjusted soon. The City will be considering smaller increases over a longer period of time Even after the adjustments that are coming, Amherst’s electric rates, when compared to other communities will still be among the lowest in the area.
The Utility Department evaluated all of our city owned utility poles. This study resulted in the need to replace 300 poles that were in poor condition. It was first estimated to take up to 5 years to complete this project in house. I am happy to report that there are only 70 poles left that need immediate attention and need to be replaced at this time.
The City has been working on a plan to limit the power outages in the city. Some of the outages are not in the city’s control, the control is in the hands of the electric distribution system that delivers the electricity to our city. Part of the issue is that there is only one point of entry that supplies the entire city. When that connection goes down the city is without power, and this seems to be happening more now than in the past. I will soon present to council a plan that will add a second point of entry for electricity to the City thereby insuring a more reliable source of power.
The other source of the outages are internal issues that we are working on solutions to improve upon our aging system. We are looking at physical barrier guards that will prevent critters from climbing poles, and protect transformers and main line cut-outs to help limit animal contact that result in outages. Further, we are looking at upgrading to larger lines and looping areas, so that the City has more options to feed an area once the electricity goes out in order restore electric service sooner.
To save electricity, and to provide more light, the city is implementing a new LED street light program. The city is working to change out all 800 street lights to LED. This will take several years and will save over 50% of the electricity that the old lights use. All new developments will be installing LED street lights including the already installed lights at the Reserve at Beaver Creek and The Preserve at Quarry Lakes.
Continued investments in the storm sewers and waste water treatment plant holding capacity of raw sewage in 2018 have favorably impacted the sanitary sewer system and treatment plant. Over the past two years, these improvements, along with innovative process changes at the treatment plant, have prevented 33.8 million gallons of partially treated wastewater from entering the Beaver Creek.
The cost of land application of bio-solids produced at the treatment plant has almost doubled over the last five years. The bio-solids are what is left over after the treatment of the waste water is completed, and must be disposed of according to strict EPA guidelines. This near doubling of land application cost along with more regulations has made the need to upgrade the current sludge process very attractive. A study is currently under way with plans for implementation late 2019 or 2020. Overall these changes will provide a cost savings, and an environmental impact relief for the city and its residents.
The excavator that was purchased last year has proven to be an excellent investment. It has been used to replace 4,500 feet of the City’s century old water lines, 17 of the city’s fire hydrants and multiple sewer projects have benefited from the use of it. It was instrumental in the storm water improvements at Maude Neiding Park to improve the flooding in the parking lot and in the building.
Very often our departments work together on projects to make the city a better place for us all. The storm water improvement in the parks is one example, another one is the lights in the parking lot south of the tracks on Maple Street. If you haven’t seen those improvements, you should park on Maple street some night and walk down town, it turned out very nice.
Our historic Downtown District is thriving. Downtown Building occupancy continues to be near 100%. And there are more spaces available as some of the older buildings on Tenney Avenue have been renovated or are about to be. City wide, Amherst has 342 businesses that employ over 8,400 people There are currently 88 businesses in our Historic down Town, 6 new ones last year, and 3 more to come.
It seems as though summer is a long ways away, Yet we are already preparing for next years swimming season at Maud Neiding Pool. We are currently accepting job applications for lifeguards. At the end of last season, the pool, and pool house underwent restorations. After the city’s park staff drained the pool and performed 20 hours of pressure washing and cleaning, a company came in and painted the bottom of the pool and re-striped the swim lane lines. Restrooms and locker rooms were updated, LED lighting was installed throughout. The pool house building and service garage were painted as well. The playground equipment donated by Amherst Rotary has been installed in the north end of the park. A swing set at the south end of Maude Neiding Park will be completed this summer. A new bulletin board for pool rules and notifications was installed. A lifeguard chair and umbrella was installed in the kiddie pool area giving the lifeguard a better view of the shallow area. And there will be new trash containers at the pool. All made possible through last year’s recycling grant awarded to the city.
In closing, the state of our City is Strong! Together we have realized many valuable accomplishments some of which I have enumerated in this report. The City of Amherst is a proud reflection of ALL of all of us…our residents, schools, businesses, churches and elected officials. Together we are THE CITY OF AMHERST and together we continue to stand strong.
Mayor, City of Amherst, Ohio