Shaker Heights council adopts ‘conservative’ 2023 budget — with $23 million cash reserve

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — While the city’s 2023 budget shows only a slight increase in the General Fund to just under $56 million, the separate cash reserve remains healthy as well at over 40 percent of that amount.

About $23.3 million remains in reserve, an increase of $6 million from early projections last year and more than enough to maintain the city’s “investment grade” bond and credit ratings of “AA+” from Standard & Poor and “AAA” with Fitch.

In approving the 2023 budget last month, City Council also transferred $10.6 million from the General Fund into the general capital ($6 million), pension for police and fire ($2.3 million combined), recreation ($1.26 million), debt service ($900,000) and self-insurance ($500,000).

The overall Capital Fund budget totals nearly $11.7 million and contains nearly $2.26 million for streets, $2 million for sewers, and nearly $2.9 million for building maintenance.

That still leaves about $2.8 million apiece in the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) account, along with the unencumbered balance in the Housing and Economic Development Fund.

The economic development fund balance remains after council agreed last summer to a $4 million “conditional grant/forgivable loan” to cover a “financing gap” for construction of the Farnsleigh apartment complex in the Van Aken District, due to unforeseen market conditions and spiraling construction costs.

City Finance Director John Potts noted that the city must have the ARPA funds “encumbered” or designated for spending by the end of 2024 and spent in 2026.

As for the rest of the pandemic aftermath, Potts noted there is still some uncertainty involving “work from home” employees and receipts, which can make it difficult to forecast.

“We have historically budgeted in a conservative manner with respect to our general operating revenues,” Potts stated in a memo to council.

And with that in mind, “we are budgeting just under $40 million in local income tax revenues for 2023, along with $8.2 million in property taxes, roughly the same as 2022,” Potts added.

Late in the year, Shaker Heights Municipal Court also received word it had received another $169,000 in ARPA funds through the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services to hire a fourth probation officer.

Capital budget

One big ticket item in the city’s 2023 Capital Fund budget will be a new $1.1 million fire engine to replace the one dating back to 2003 and subject to supply chain issues, including cost and delivery time.

“These engines used to cost $700,000 and now they’re over $1 million,” Shaker Heights Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney noted. “And where it normally took eight months to have it built and delivered, we’re looking at up to three years.

“Council ordered a new ambulance in 2021 and we still haven’t seen it,” Sweeney added. “The cost and delivery times are a concern to a lot of departments and chiefs.”

Delivery for the new engine, which makes about 900 runs a year, might not be until 2026, another reason to lock in the current price, with council also approving another $410,000 replacement rescue squad in the 2023 capital budget and a $55,000 administrative SUV.

Six new police cars are also on order in the 2023 budget at a total cost of $325,000, along with the $110,00 replacement of the department’s 60 Tasers, the only “‘less-lethal tool’ available for that does not rely on pain compliance to control an actively resisting subject, doing so by means of ‘muscular disruption,’” Police Chief Jeff DeMuth noted earlier.

Both the police and the fire departments will be getting new “ruggedized” mobile data terminals (MDT’s) at a total cost of $205,000 in the Information Technology capital budget, city IT Director Frank Miozzi said.

The Public Works Department’s garbage transfer station also needs a $1.4 million upgrade, with serious deterioration of the shored-up concrete floor that extends to the salt storage building, as well as corroded roof trusses that are no longer structurally sound, director Patti Speese noted earlier.

City officials also plan to take out a $1.4 million zero-interest loan this year through the Ohio Water Development Authority for part of this and various other Public Works projects.

These include a $480,000 estimate on filling in the abandoned underground coal room at City Hall, where the ceiling, concrete and steel beams have deteriorated over the years.

A roughly 600-square foot room with a 10-foot ceiling Public Works Department Building Superintendent Shannon Marlin noted that it will make for a “tough project” since it sits under the main entrance, flower beds, window wells, paver bricks and a small piece of parking lot drive.

“Rather than actually repairing the room per se, we will most likely be abandoning it,” Marlin said, adding that this will entail removing all of the utilities in the floor, ceiling and walls back to the building, as well as City Hall foundation work, waterproofing and possibly disconnecting the old coal room space from the side of the building.

“After that’s all done the area will be excavated, the roof opened and the space filled with material, most likely about 200 cubic yards of low strength mortar, and finally the front entrance area would be restored,” Marlin said.

Among “miscellaneous” in the Public Works capital budget  is a $225,000 set-aside for Doan Brook Restoration Amenities Design Fees for improvements outside the scope of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s $14 million project to remove the failing 170-year-old dam from Horseshoe Lake and restore two stream channels in 2024.

There are numerous vehicle purchases and at least one lease ($60,000 for a Jet-Vac sewer trucks) in the 2023 Public Works budget, totaling over $700,000 as well, including a $225,000 dump truck, two sidewalk plows ($110,000), a leaf vacuum truck ($85,000), a diesel refuse scooter ($45,000) and a new electric mower ($20,000).

For the Recreation Department, Thornton Park gets nearly $740,000 out of the capital budget, more than half of that going into the parking lot and entrance off Warrensville Center Road ($425,000).

There’s also $300,000 budgeted to replace the pool liner after a brief shutdown for emergency repairs when the adhesive failed over the summer and separate from that, $14,000 total for new concession stand equipment and an electric ice edger replacing a sputtering gas-powered model.

Dating back to 1994, the crumbling Town Center Trail around the main library and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building will get a $60,000 overhaul and another $50,000 in general park repairs will include replacement of the Around-the-World playground slide.

The restrooms at Horseshoe Lake Park will also be repainted, and a separate $20,000 is allocated for soccer field improvements at Courtland Oval, including the removal of stumps to expand the playing field, Parks and Rec Director Alexandra Nichols said earlier.

No ‘fit’ plans

The only requests removed from the 2023 capital budget by council were a $120,000 feasibility study looking at alternative uses for the Shaker School District’s longstanding bus depot in the Chagrin-Lee corridor, and $75,000 for recreational facility “fit” plans — basically seeing what options will “fit” on a particular site — for Shaker Heights Middle School, Thornton Park and the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building.

Some council members felt that the school district should kick some of the cost for the bus depot study, but proponents pointed out that the city has the interest in redeveloping the property — possibly incorporating it into the Lee Road Action Plan — while the school district might require persuasion to let go of it and find somewhere else to park its buses.

City Planning Director Joyce Braverman said that in spite of the funding setback, regularly-scheduled community surveys will be mailed out that will include some questions about recreation to gain residents’ feedback.

Early Childhood Enrichment Center

During the public comment portion of Dec. 19 meeting where the 2023 budget was passed, council also heard from resident Kevin Moran, who asked the city to consider putting some money into the former Sussex Elementary School building, home to the Early Childhood Enrichment Center.

“It’s a key selling point” in the community for families with young children looking at living in Shaker, Moran reminded council.

Neither tenant — the ECEC or the Carol Nursery School — is “able to buy the building outright, and it has been deteriorating since Family Connections moved out several years ago.

The Morans have a young child enrolled there and Kevin believes that if the city owns the building, it should be maintained to continue to provide a return on investment for all parties concerned.

In response to his contention that there appears to be “no long-term plan for the building, Moran was told that the city “continues to exchange information and proposals with ECEC.”

Another retirement

In addition to retiring Police Chief Jeff Demuth attending his final meeting, council also recognized retiring Assistant City Finance Director Cheryl Arslanian, who has been with the city for nearly 10 years, coming over from the Cuyahoga County Auditor’s Office.

“I’m going to miss everybody,” Arslanian said. “But I’ve been watching you on ‘Zoom’ the whole budget time.”

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