November 27, 2014

Elyria
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How will Elyria’s cash windfall be spent?

ELYRIA — It’s a good question to have to answer.

Now that Elyria has been awarded about $3.5 million in unclaimed funds from the state, city officials met to ponder the future now that they have a little bit of unexpected money to spend.

“The question is, what do we do now?” Mayor Holly Brinda said. “It’s a multimillion dollar problem.”

Imagine finding a $100 bill in an old coat pocket. Naturally, you would want to find a way to put the money to good use. Elyria is no different, or at least Brinda hopes city officials feel that way.

On Tuesday, no agenda was set during the first talks about what to do with the funds, but the meeting allowed several Council members to express where they stand.

Brinda suggested the possibility of paying off past debt, using the money as matching funds for larger projects or even placing it in a rainy day fund for future use and asked Council to help chart the path the city should take.

Brinda said the city has gotten accustomed to using grants to prop up the city budget without a long-term plan of how to wean the city off federal funds.

“What we don’t want to do, in my opinion, is perpetuate that situation,” she said.

Council President Mike Lotko agreed.

“We don’t want to put the money toward maintaining operating expenses, i.e. salaries and payroll,” said Lotko, D-at large. “Going forward, we need to determine what projects need to be completed. We need to prioritize and determine what is important.”

Many Council members stressed that the plan to use the money must be conveyed to residents in the proper way.

Councilman Garry Gibbs, R-3rd Ward, said Council members should work with the administration to determine how the money is spent instead of just relying on the mayor to give recommendations.

Now is the time for all 11 Council members to come up with a wish list for their own respective wards, he said.

“If we don’t invest in the neighborhoods, and the residents don’t see some kind of improvement, I think we will see some problems in November when we ask them to approve the temporary income tax,” Gibbs said. “If we can’t give them a dime of the $3.5 million, then how can we expect them to want to give us $6 million?”

Each five years, the city must return to the ballot to renew a 0.5 percent income tax levy that generates roughly $6 million a year. Even though the renewal does not result in new tax dollars, getting it passed is often a challenge for city officials, who have to prove to residents that the city still needs and deserves the revenue.

Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large, said his first suggestion would be to place $600,000 back into the street improvement fund, which was the amount siphoned away in 2012 to pay for the demolition of the old City Hall on Broad Street.

“Taking the money away was a huge blow to the citizens who wanted to see more roads paved last year,” he said.

Placing a portion of the funds into the street fund will be a huge step toward restoring trust, Baird said.

Speaking of residents, Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, said voters and taxpayers in the city should be asked for ideas on how the money should be spent.

“We should not squander this moment and really take the time to engage residents,” he said. “We have a lot of decisions to be made, and we need their buy-in for things down the road.”

Councilwoman Donna Mitchell, D-6th Ward, said she is already thinking of her residents and made a push for some of the money to go toward work at West Park, which is in her ward and home to one of the city’s two closed pools.

“The bottom line is we have to show residents that we are giving this money back to them,” she said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.