July 31, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria officials debate how to spend $3.4 million windfall

ELYRIA — The reconfiguration of state Route 57 near Midway Mall, a project that has been on the minds of many for several years, could take upwards of $2 million of the city’s $3.4 million windfall.

Mayor Holly Brinda told City Council members Monday night the shovel-ready project that has a total price tag of $22.4 million is on the top of her to-do list. The total cost will be shared between federal, state and local dollars, and as a result Elyria will have to come up with at least $2 million.

“It is a huge project for our area because it has a lot of benefits to our community,” Brinda said.

Financing the project over several years — much like was done with the reconstruction of Route 57 between Chestnut Ridge Road and Lorain Boulevard — is not the best approach because it would require Finance Director Ted Pileski to move inside millage resulting in a decline of roughly $300,000 in the general fund. In a year when the city’s general budget is $1.7 million less than the previous year because of revenue shrinkage, dipping further into the general fund would not be smart, Brinda said. Not to mention, the city’s borrowing capacity is not great because it has financed a number of huge projects over the years.

Instead, Brinda said its best to just pay with city’s portion of the project with the windfall funds because it would not affect future city finances.

Since the city learned of the money earlier this year, city officials have not been able to agree on how to spend the millions. But all agree the funds should not go toward personal costs or items future budgets could not sustain.

But letting one project take up most of the windfall is not ideal to some Council members.

“I’m not sold on taking two-thirds of the money for one project,” said Councilman Garry Gibbs, R-3rd Ward. “We are catering to a bunch of businesses that really should be stepping up to the plate with some shared cost responsibilities. This really didn’t even jump to my Top 20 list.”

Gibbs questioned Brinda’s claim the project would create jobs and revitalize the Midway Mall area. He asked to see any economic development analysis Brinda completed that led her to make those claims.

However, Brinda could not provide such data, only saying the management of Midway Mall has spoken often about the complexity of the interchange and how it is a hindrance to development.

“Of all the projects, this has the potential to have to greatest impact,” Brinda said. “We can’t quantify the economic impact in terms of direct jobs. Instead, the question we have to ask ourselves is what will happen to the Midway Mall area without this project?”

Later in her presentation, Brinda recommended Council spend at least $50,000 on economic development analysis and planning for keys areas of the city. Without a clear economic development plan, Brinda said answering questions about what the long range implications of various projects is difficult.

Brinda is not the only supporter of the Route 57 reconfiguration project. Former Mayor Bill Grace wanted to have the project completed years ago, and earlier in the day state Sen. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, said the project is just the kind of thing the Ohio Turnpike bond sales could finance sooner rather than later.

Gov. John Kasich signed the transportation budget bill into law Monday prior to the meeting at a separate, unrelated event, which basically means bond sales could happen soon and proponents of several transportation projects are lining up to ensure their project goes to the top of the list.

Other items on Brinda’s wish list include $800,000 for the local share of the $3.4 million Middle Avenue Improvement Project, $250,000 for road resurfacing, $240,000 for technology and software upgrades throughout the city, $60,000 for upgrades to city hall and $50,000 for a downtown and business district market analysis and plan.

The software upgrades include spending $75,000 on a new timecard system, a figure that rankled some Council members. Gibbs said the primary question Council should ask before settling on how to spend the money is how will it improve the lives of residents. He would like to see more money be spent on roads.

However, Council President Mike Lotko said Council has to think outside of the myopic scope of just resurfacing streets.

“We have to look at what is going to save the city money over the long run,” he said. “Streets are important — we all know that. We would love to put $10 million into streets, but realistically we can’t do that.”

Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said the new timecard system could eventually pay for itself in the way it saves the city money. Currently, the city uses a hodgepodge system of keeping track of payroll — some computerized and some manual — with no clear way of keeping accurate records.

“When you boil it all down, the biggest expense we have is our personnel,” Siwierka said. “This system will ensure we are actually paying people properly. When you are looking at the fact we cut payroll checks upwards of $1 million every two weeks just a half of a percentage point of error could mean $200,000 a year in money we can recoup with a new system.”

For the most part, Brinda dominated the conversation about how the money should be spent. Gibbs was the only Council member to offer alternatives although his ideas did not come with dollar figures. He would like to see the money spent on street resurfacing, streetscapes, equipment, software and education for the safety forces as well as the removal of ash trees and planting of new trees.

“I know the idea is to do one-time spending in ways that address the most pressing needs of the city, but I was looking for something more tangible to enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he said.

Council did not vote on the recommendations Monday, Lotko encouraged Council members to think about Brinda’s ideas as well as come up with some of their own to further drive the conversation.

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