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City Investments...

As a $50 million dollar a year business, the City has cash flow management objectives that are not that different from the goals of most households — we seek to maximize the return on City revenues and minimize our investment costs while keeping enough cash on hand to pay our bills.

Unfortunately City revenues don’t necessarily arrive on a nice, easy to plan for, weekly installment basis; rather they tend to come in fits and spurts that usually correspond to tax payment time.

That results in large chunks of revenues arriving a couple times a year which we then have to stretch out to make sure we can cover a full year’s worth of costs.  What we do with that large chunk of cash during that stretch period is what cash management is all about.

Our bills as a City are a little more consistent and like most households we have a long list of items that have to get paid each week.  With roughly 70% of our costs in our employees we have to make sure we have enough liquid cash to make weekly payroll.

When you have an uneven distribution of incoming revenues matched with steady outgoing weekly payments, you’ve got to be reasonably sophisticated in managing your cash flow.  Our cash balances move up and down so we try to line up our investments to fill the gaps but we also want to stay in the market long enough to generate some much valued investment income.

Our Finance Department works hard to anticipate the projected balance between our revenues and payments, and they make decisions on how much cash we can afford to tie up in investments and how much cash we have to keep on hand to keep the wheels of the City government turning.

I’m oversimplifying what is actually a pretty sophisticated cash management portfolio that our Finance Department seeks to preserve and grow.  When interest rates were higher this was a more stressful process because we wanted to put City taxpayer dollars to work and earn as much interest income as possible without cutting it too close and leaving ourselves short when it was time to write the checks.

When interest rates were higher we were able to put our revenues to work and bring in over a million dollars from investments a year.  $1,000,000 goes a long ways and that’s money that we don’t have to ask the taxpayers to come up with — we let the investment market do the hard work for all of us.

For good reason the City is notoriously conservative in our investments — which means we stay in low risk and generally low return funds.  But yesterday’s low returns look pretty high today so it’s all a matter of perspective.

For comparison sake, here’s a (discouraging) look at our investment earnings over the last 8 years as it mirrors the falling interest rates in the market.

2006 = $1,202,764
2007 = $1,436,221
2008 = $1,313,575
2009 = $712,742
2010 = $471,539
2011 = $223,993
2012 = $196,619
2013 = $160,052

Given the uncertainty of interest rates, the City is cautious not to overstate budget expectations for interest income when it comes to paying our bills but there is no doubt that losing $1 million in revenues at the same time that the State cut our local government funding by $1 million put a serious hurt on our cash flow.

It’s the reality of investment markets but it’s painful to watch and go through.  On the flip side that’s why our financial advisors tells us to borrow, borrow, borrow –  with interest rates at historic lows the City should be seriously looking at borrowing money because the cost of money (in terms of interest rates) has never been better.

Coming out of the Great Recession when everybody was scraping by and a lot of the blame was put on excessive lending and borrowing habits, it’s a bit of a hard sell to argue for taking out debt but financially that’s what smart businesses and cities are doing to take advantage of the market rates that have killed our interest income but are very attractive for borrowing.

If you have large projects that have been deferred, now would be the time to borrow the money to get them done.  That was part of the logic behind building the new police station now — we can get it built and financed cheaper than ever and our City’s overall debt remains very low.

This post was prompted by the Finance Department’s recent investment portfolio performance report, the highlights of which I’ve shared below:

ConsolidatedMaturity ConsolidatedCall ConsolidatedAssetClass ConsolidatedMaturityMonths

Charter Review Commission...

In the world of cities, Kent is considered a “Home Rule” City which means we took the statutory authority granted to us by the State of Ohio to govern our piece of Ohio, and with the approval of Kent voters added local flavor by crafting a City Charter that spells out the who, what, where, when and how for managing government services in the Kent community.

[click here to read the current City Charter]

The City Charter is the touchstone and legal basis for just about everything we do as a city so it’s an important document that needs to stay current with the sentiments of the people that call Kent home and rely on City services in one form or another.

That’s why every 10 years the Kent City Council appoints a group of interested residents to take the plunge and dive into the details of the Kent City Charter to make sure it still reflects the values and expectations of the residents of Kent.

With such an important task at hand, the residents volunteer to be a part of the Charter Review Commission and after completing their study they will submit a series of recommendations for possible Charter changes for City Council to consider putting on the ballot for Kent voters to formally give a thumbs up or thumb down at the next election.

The Charter Review is an open, public process with ample opportunities to weigh-in on topics.  And ultimately you make the final decision as you vote to accept to decline any of the proposals that come out of this process on election day.

The City Charter has been in place for decades so at this point it doesn’t necessarily change all that much.  Good governments provide stability and continuity in a community so rarely are there dramatic swings in city charters — but in the spirit of staying meaningful and impactful Kent opens the Charter up for public dialogue and that process has just kicked-off the 2015 Charter Review campaign.

Council has made their appointments and there’s been one Charter Review Commission Rules Sub-Committee meeting so far with more planned in the weeks that follow.  Since the best dialogue tends to benefit from good information, I thought I’d pass along the information that came out of the initial meeting so that you can follow along at home

To get things off on the right track (and to help ensure they stay on track), the Commission begins by establishing the ground rules which they’ll use to manage the review process.  It’s not the most exciting thing they’ll do but rules and procedures become pretty important in public discussions where opinions can be all over the map yet consensus has to eventually be found.

The rules help keep the issues the focus of attention.  Here’s the links to the minutes of the first meeting and the rules that they’ll use moving forward.

Rules subcommittee-1-22-15

RULES-2015

Lastly, I’ve provided the agenda for their next meeting:

CharterReviewAgenda1_29_15

Taking Out the Trash...

Kent’s Health Commissioner and his staff have worked hard to step up their attention to proper trash handling in City neighborhoods and it’s encouraging to see things looking better than ever before — but there’s still room to improve and at the recommendation of the Health Department, City Council approved a new set of regulations, tickets, and fines that can be used at properties of repeat offenders who choose week-in and week-out to ignore basic trash storage and containerization requirements.

The Health Department made their recommendations to up the ante on trash compliance because they’ve received an increasing number of trash complaints called in during 2014 – with many of the TrashPiccomplaints coming from neighbors living near properties that have become chronic violators.  It was time to try something different and bring those neighborhoods some relief.

Improper handling of trash can lead to a long list of troubles from unsanitary conditions and the types of vermin and problems it attracts.  Not to mention it’s an unsightly nuisance when it’s spread all over front yards rather than in trash cans where it’s supposed to be.

The Health Department doesn’t want to play the role of trash police but when all else fails there needs to be some recourse to protect neighborhoods and that’s where the new tickets and fines will come into play.

Despite what cynics might suggest, the tickets are not a money maker for the Health Department and they’re truly are a measure of last resort.  The Health Department will not go looking for problems but when they receive a complaint there’s an expectation that they have the tools needed to fix it.

Fixing something on private property is always tricky and everyone is happiest when a knock on the door and a little education produces the results everyone was hoping for but not everything goes that smoothly and for those cases that require a little extra push, the new ticketing system should go a long way.

That’s a bit of the logic behind the new trash tickets and here’s more details supplied by the Health Department (you can also jump to the Kent Health Department Web Site to read more by clicking here).

NewTrashRegs1

NewTrashRegs2

 

 

 

 

 

Kent’s New Economic Development Director...

Its been 2 weeks since Tom Wilke officially assumed command of the City’s Economic Development Office but I wanted to give him a little time to get acclimated before we cut him loose publicly.

Time’s up!

Please join me in welcoming Tom Wilke to team Kent.  Here’s his bio.

TomBio2

Tom Wilke, Kent’s Economic Development Director

 

 

 

 

Sidewalk Snow Removal...

Unfortunately sidewalks, snow, ice and pedestrians don’t mix that well and this is the time of year when the polar vortex forces us to deal with it in the name of safety.

The City is proud of its reputation as a walkable city, especially around campus and downtown, but living in the snow belt we have the challenge of living up to that reputation 12 months a year.

The City’s Public Service Director (Gene Roberts) and I have recently shared information to a group of concerned winter walkers about Kent’s sidewalk shoveling rules, regs, and services – and I thought this would be a good time to pass it along as a friendly reminder for the role we all have in keeping our sidewalks safe for everyone, especially those folks that who are least equipped to handle slips, trips and falls — like the seniors, children and disabled that call Kent home.

My Response to the Concerned Kent Winter Walkers

I very much appreciate the interest and concern expressed for pedestrian safety during our winter months.  Gene Roberts copied me on his response to you and I thought he provided an excellent outline of the many dimensions to our sidewalk shoveling challenges.  For what it’s worth, I wanted to add my observations on this important issue in Kent.

First off, while it may not necessarily be obvious based on the condition of some of the snow covered sidewalks right now, pedestrian safety in the winter is a top priority to the staff and City Council.  Believe it or not back in 2010-11 when we tallied the number of hours that staff spent working with City Council on issues during the previous 12 months, sidewalk shoveling ranked number 1.  Sidewalk safety in the winter months received more attention than anything we’ve done, including downtown redevelopment.

The problem continues but it is not a due to a lack of attention.  We brought in speakers, we visited other communities, we benchmarked best practices, we created a citizens committee to study sidewalk shoveling in Kent, we drafted new policies, we calculated the costs of new services, we analyzed shoveling compliance and we proposed a range of service options.  Despite all that effort, no easy answers were found.

Like so many public policy issues, the fix ultimately comes down to figuring out how much “we” as a community are willing to pay to have the City clear sidewalks and how much are “we” willing to do ourselves under the auspices of old fashioned “civic duty.”  We found in our hours of study that opinions are all over the map on where the City role should end and where civic responsibility should kick-in, and consequently finding a consensus was nearly impossible.

If monies were unlimited I think everyone would agree to add it to the City’s “to do” list to make sure it gets done reliably, timely and properly.  The trouble is Gene calculated the cost of citywide sidewalk shoveling at over $1 million — which is a big number in the context of the City budget and is just not available to us right now.

If we can’t afford to clear all of the sidewalks, that logically led to a lengthy discussion on how much can we afford and how do we go about “picking and choosing” which sidewalks to clear and which ones to leave in the civic duty category.

We came up with some reasonable factors to consider, e.g., ped counts, vehicle speeds, handicapped proximity, senior citizens, young students who walk to school, etc., in order to provide a defensible basis for why city tax dollars were being used for sidewalk clearing on one street but not another.  It turned out that while it might sound good on paper to develop sidewalk priorities, it broke down when it came time to actually make the cuts and ultimately it became politically untenable.  As a result, sidewalk shoveling was deemed to be an all or nothing option.

The do nothing option takes us right back to the current situation where the community relies on “civic duty” to motivate residents to do their part and clear their sidewalk frontage for the good of the whole.  But as you observed compliance doesn’t keep pace and we’re left with many unsafe sections of sidewalk.

That led us to take a hard look at what could be done to compel civic duty to improve compliance.  We covered the gamut here too — we considered new ticketing procedures, court actions, tax penalties, shaming people by listing properties that were chronic non-shovelers.  While we did come up with a few small changes for the most part neither staff or Council were comfortable with making Kent a shoveling police state so little was changed in that regard.

As solutions proved elusive a few groups and individuals took shovels into their own hands and formed a small shovel brigade that volunteered to adopt the shoveling duties on certain streets. Kent State students and fraternities joined in and they made an impact in certain areas but unfortunately they graduated and the volunteer spirit graduated along with them.

So fundamentally we’re back where we started.  The City Code says that all of us who reside or do business in Kent must not push or pile snow in such a way as to block or impede safe passage on City sidewalks.  If you pile and block it, you can get a ticket.

If mother nature left piles of snow on the sidewalk the Code says that all of us who reside or do business in Kent are responsible for clearing that snow within a reasonable amount of time after the snow storm has ceased.  As noted above there no effective means of enforcement on the books to inspire better compliance so many are left untouched.  Which means we still rely on the appeal of civic duty and good citizenship to encourage property owners to do their part.

I think the extra efforts that Gene noted in his email have definitely helped but the problem is still evident enough that you felt moved to write a letter of concern so there’s clearly more work to be done.

Thanks.

————-

Email from Gene Roberts, Public Service Director

Kent City Council has discussed this very issue several times during my tenure as Service Director, and the following are some of the key findings:

Our Law Director advised that case law does not support the forced removal by property owners of snow from public sidewalks

Council provided for additional voluntary reminder notifications to go out with each notice of snow parking ban

Council provided a small fund to be used for removal of snow at intersection cross walks where City street snow removal operations have left large volumes of snow at the corners during street clearing

Central Maintenance continues to improve street snow removal operations to decrease the volume of snow left behind on sidewalks (however in locations like SR 59 where the sidewalk is at back of curb snow on sidewalks is the only option if the streets are to be plowed)

Community Development is following Council’s direction to take a more aggressive approach with commercial property owners where snow is left behind from private parking clearing operations

The Police in conjunction with the Law Department are issuing citations where private property snow plow operators are found pushing snow onto public walks

I believe I speak for those of us that have discussed this issue at length when I say until a funding source sufficient to remove snow from walks is found that we are stuck with our current situation.

During previous years KSU students have completed some voluntary snow removal from sidewalks when they reached out to our senior citizens assisting with sidewalk clearing.  Is it possible to mobilize the students to clear the routes most used by their fellow students, especially those in wheel chairs?

I know that you where hoping that a simple request would be followed by a quick and simple response but hopefully this abbreviated response starts to address the complexity of this issue.

Thanks.

Gene Roberts

 

 

 

911 Service Disruption...

          As reported in the news an AT&T service disruption last night knocked out 911 service to the greater Akron area, including Summit, Medina, and Portage County among others.
          The early reports indicated that a steam pipe problem at their Akron facility resulted in the loss of telephone service, including 911 calls, in the Akron region sometime between 8 pm to 2 am.
          AT&T is the local telephone service provider and they own the region’s tele-communications backbone so when they lost power at their Akron hub all of us were knocked off line.
          Non-AT&T cell phone service still worked (like our City Verizon phones) but 911 was inaccessible. Like most of the other cities we advised the media outlets and we used our SwiftReach emergency notification service to direct 911 calls to our non-emergency phone line (330-673-7732).
          Unfortunately any resident that used their AT&T land line as their SwiftReach notification number probably didn’t receive our information message because they relied on the AT&T system which was off-line to get it.
          AT&T internet and television service remained operational during the outage and AT&T customers could access service information updates through various sources if they knew to look for it.  I’m guessing that the television advisory notices reached the most people and were probably the most effective means of getting information out.
          The other carrier cell services were operational throughout the incident but obviously they could only connect to themselves, not to AT&T.  The City’s Verizon phones and radios worked fine so we used those to communicate among ourselves and with residents that had non-AT&T cell phone service during the outage.
          This incident is reminiscent of the power outage that affected the region and much of the northeast a number of years ago.  Whether it’s power supply or telecommunications, when the local service backbone is knocked out we’re all immediately out of service.
          The City staff and I had discussions this morning about how to reduce our vulnerability, for example keeping cell phones active from multiple carriers so that if one cell service goes down we could use the other in an emergency.  Obviously we’re still limited to AT&T for all of the local carrier calls and we rely on them to ensure the appropriate level of redundancy.
          It is our understanding that the loss of steam power caused the system to switch over to battery backup which lasted a couple of hours and AT&T reported that they were having a large generator transported to the site.  At this point it is unclear if the steam pipe failure also caused any computer network damage. AT&T’s systems are all computer operated and typically water and computers don’t mix well so we weren’t sure if AT&T lost power and had equipment damage or just lost power.
           We had generally understood one of the benefits of the sophisticated telecommunications computer networks in use today were those systems’ ability to immediately switch and re-route around any failures in the network but for whatever reason that did not seem to come into play last night.
          I talked with Kent Dispatch this morning and they said they are thankfully back on-line with 911.
Like everyone else in our region we are anxious to better understand why the redundancy that we expected to kick-in last night, did not.  I suspect those answers will come from AT&T in the days that follow.
          In case you’re not aware, there is another source of emergency information that we use and recommend for situations like this — it’s the Portage Prepares web site.  It offers both facebook and twitter feeds to stay current with changing emergency conditions in Portage County.

Kent Parks and Rec...

It’s new year resolution time and Kent Parks and Rec are standing by to help you reach your fitness goals – or just put a little fun in your daily routine.

The Kent Parks and Rec program director sent me a note about their January activities and I thought I’d pass it along:

“Kent Parks and Rec will be mailing out the 2015 Calendar very soon. Since you have not received it yet, I want to inform you of the January Highlights from your Recreation Department in Kent,
 
Kid Nite Out: January 10th 6 – 10 p.m.
Kent Youth Baseball Travel Leagues: Registration deadline January 16th
Kent Soccer Club Informational Meeting: January 18th 2 – 3 p.m. Kent Rec Center 1115 Franklin Ave. If you have a child interested in travel soccer, please plan to attend this meeting.
Martial Arts is Back: Session 1 begins January 21 at the KPR Fitness Center. Wednesday’s 6-7 p.m.
Kent Retirees Association-Uno Party and Chinese New Year Celebration- January 14th 11:30 a.m. Kent Rec Center
Art In the Park Artist and Youth Artist applications available on the website beginning January 23rd
KPR Fitness Center: New in 2015. Gym Memberships only $10 / month. No Contracts or yearly commitments. Fitness Classes offered morning, daytime, and evenings 7 days. Also, Silver Sneakers is available 4 days a week.
 
For any of our programs that you are interested in, please call us at (330) 673-8897 or visit our website at kentparksandrec.com
Kent Parks and Recreation~Where Everyone Benefits
Have a Safe and Wonderful 2015! “

Courthouse For Sale...

The former Portage County Municipal Court located in downtown Kent is officially for sale.

Monday, January 12th, the City’s Economic Development Director put the finishing touches on the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the sale of the former muni-court building that has been vacant for about 6 months since the County completed their relocation to the new court building at the top of the hill on Main Street in downtown Kent.CourthouseRFP

Click Here to Read the Full RFP

The RFP asks for interested developers to submit a purchase price and a proposal for how they intend to re-use the building.  The City staff will review the submissions in March and rank them for City Council’s consideration based on the price, how well their proposed re-use fits in downtown Kent, their financial capabilities to pull off a project of this size, and their experience with projects like this.

City Council isn’t obligated to accept any of the deals that get proposed from the RFP but this is a great way for Council to test the market and hopefully find another project that will complement and add to the vibrancy of downtown Kent.

Council purchased the former courthouse before most of the downtown commercial revitalization had started so at that time Council was very anxious to sell the building for new commercial use as quickly as possible once the County moved out.

By the time the County built their new building and moved out in 2014 the downtown commercial redevelopment was in high gear so other than wanting to pay off the debt that the City used to buy the building as soon as possible, there’s less urgency to sell it to the first warm bodied bidder that comes along.

City Council can be more selective and be sure that the proposed buyer will take care of the building and integrate it back into Kent’s vibrant downtown business scene.

When Council agreed to purchase the building from the County it was predicated on restoring the historic building for re-purposing — not demolition.

This 1930′s era WPA (former post office and county courthouse) building has too much history to lose so Council was willing to work a deal where the City bought the land for the new court building and then traded that land with the County to acquire the old courthouse building in exchange.

The County ended up with a beautiful new muni-court building that sits prominently at the crest of the Main Street hill – and the City ended up being able to replace the old dilapidated Kent motel with a great new court building, add more free parking public parking lots, and take over a building that we hope has potential great upside for redevelopment.

New County Courthouse building on Main Street at the old Kent motel lodge site.

New County Courthouse building on Main Street at the former Kent motel lodge site.

The RFP should give us some insight into what comes next for this classic courthouse building.

Stay tuned.

 

911 Dispatch Services...

No one hopes to have to call 911 but it’s good to know that if you do, you’ve got the best technology working for you.

The current 911 technology used to take your call, tell us where you are, gather health information, and get our emergency responders to you is exceptional.  The arrival of the digital age in 911 services has been transformative and lives are being saved because of it.

Like most things in life, the new 911 technology doesn’t come cheap and that’s put a lot of pressure on smaller cities and villages to keep pace.

Many smaller cities saw the writing on the wall and rather than trying to take on major investments in new technology, they partnered with their neighbors to pool their resources and share dispatch services.

Many places already shared the costs of expensive fire apparatus ($1 million fire ladder trucks for example) so when faced with potentially budget breaking costs in new 911 technology partnering was natural.

A lot of the 911 changes in Ohio came about from changes in State law that affected the number of 911 call centers across the State.  Way back, with the arrival of wireless cellphones, local city 911 systems were required to develop the capacity to receive, locate and respond to those wireless calls just like hard lines.

In order to help cities pay for the wireless expansion of 911 the State established a new fee on cell phone calls and those fees were set aside to help cities upgrade technology to integrate the wireless 911 calls into local service capabilities.  To be eligible for the funds, each County had to adopt a wireless 911 plan that demonstrated how the 911 call centers operating in the County planned to comply with the new wireless requirements.

Some counties adopted a county managed 911 plan but many, like Portage County, encouraged progress towards county-wide consistency in the long term but left each City to make their own decisions on how to provide the wireless 911 services.

Over the last 3-5 years the State has changed gears and amended the 911 funding to push for greater consolidation of the numerous 911 call centers working throughout Ohio.  The State set a limit of no more than 3 “official” 911 centers in each County and in Kent we’ve seen a gradual “virtual” consolidation through the use of shared and compatible 911 systems between the City of Kent and Kent State University.

I say “virtual” because the technology shared between Kent and Kent State dispatch runs on the same platform and although KSU staff answer the calls that are routed to them — and we have our dispatch staff answer calls that come to us — we have instantaneous back-up with one another and we can immediately see any information that appears on their dispatch screens and they can immediately see ours as well — hence, “virtual” consolidation of services without physically sharing the same location.

Fast forward and the State is now talking about amending the law further to push for “real” rather than “virtual” consolidation which as you can imagine has many cities, townships and counties wondering about the future of their local 911 service.

At this point the State has not provided any clear guidance on where they are heading with the law but we’re watching closely since we’re already working with Kent State to make investment decisions for the Next Generation 911 technology that will include even more 911 caller data, including emergency texting and video capability over the phone.

Coyotes in Kent...

It’s routine for the City to get calls about problems with nuisance animals like feral cats, ground hogs, raccoons and skunks but at the end of 2014 we started getting an unusual number of calls reporting sightings of coyotes in town.

We knew there was a good probability that coyotes had called Kent home Coyote10for a couple of decades but they are a notoriously elusive breed and they prefer to stay out of sight so we had very few actual coyote sightings.

Fast forward to Fall 2014 and we started to notice an uptick in the number of reported coyote calls, including reports of daytime sightings of coyotes up close and personal in residents’ backyards — and even on back-patios.

It was time to get educated on coyote behavior so that we could help answer resident questions and concerns.  The internet is great for that sort of research and we quickly found our way to the Division of Wildlife in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).

It turns out that coyote sightings in cities is one of the most frequently asked questions that ODNR receives so they had some great information to share.  One of the ODNR staff came to the City Council this week and gave a good overview of how coyotes have adapted to city environments like Kent.

ODNR offered good advice on how to avoid human or pet problems with coyotes.  The bottom line seemed to be that while it can be a bit alarming to see a coyote in neighborhoods there are some simple steps we can take to avoid any trouble for us or our pets.

Here’s some of the information that ODNR provided:

Coyote1

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Coyote3Coyote4Coyote5Coyote6 Coyote7 Coyote8 Coyote9

 

 

 

 

 

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