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County Council gets behind zoo levy

4/25/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

DOWNTOWN AKRON — The Akron Zoo is seeking a renewal of its levy, and Summit County Council showed its support during its April 22 meeting.

Council’s Committee of the Whole recommended Council adopt a resolution declaring the necessity for the 0.8-mill property tax levy renewal to be on the November General Election ballot. The seven-year renewal levy would be collected starting in 2014.

Zoo President and CEO Patricia Simmons appeared before the committee to ask for its support.

“We’ve had two levies now, and both were very successful,” she said.

Since approval of the levy in 1999, zoo officials have significantly changed the zoo and built new exhibits, Simmons said. The latest exhibit, Grizzly Ridge, will open this summer, she added.

Bob Littman, chairman of the zoo’s board, said in addition to new exhibits, zoo officials have worked to add revenue-enhancing attractions such as the Conservation Carousel. Annual attendance has risen from 250,000 to 330,000, he added, noting that last year’s attendance numbers set a record.

“We are a fiscally sound zoo,” Littman said.

To illustrate that, Littman said the zoo will have about $9.7 million left at the end of its current levy cycle, which is more than the $8.2 million that had been projected.

Council members, many of whom recently toured the zoo with Simmons, said the zoo is a positive thing for the county.

“It’s something truly to be proud of, and it’s right in the city of Akron,” said Frank Comunale (D-District 4).

Tamela Lee (D-District 5) said the zoo also has helped improve its West Akron neighborhood.

“You make people proud to be in that neighborhood,” Lee said.

Bill Roemer (R-at large) said he initially had some concerns with the zoo’s finances but said he now “feels very comfortable” with information provided.

The zoo was the first levy-supported entity to come before Council this year. Also expected to be on the ballot in the fall are Metro Parks, Serving Summit County and the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board.

Also Monday, Council’s Personnel Committee recommended Council adopt an amended resolution authorizing 2.5 percent salary increases for 14 nonbargaining employees in the Engineer’s Office.

The resolution had originally been crafted to grant the employees a 4 percent increase. Director of Administration Steve Brunot said the request was made to be fairer in the department, where union employees have seen raises in recent years while the others have not.

But Jason Dodson, chief of staff for County Executive Russ Pry, said the Engineer’s Office is not the only county office to see that issue. He added that it’s possible the county will put forth a proposal for a 1.5 percent raise for nonbargaining employees soon, which prompted the reduction in the resolution.

Brunot defended the office’s request, adding that the money for the raises, about $34,000 in wages and $6,000 in benefits, is in the budget. He also said the office has reduced its staff from 125 people four years ago to 105 now.

Councilwoman Ilene Shapiro (D-at large), who is not on the committee, said she has some concerns about the raises. The discussion came after Brian Nelsen, director of Finance and Budget, gave his monthly report on the county’s finances.

During that, Nelsen said the county’s revenue flow is “a little better than expected.” Among the highlights are property transfer taxes, which are up 46 percent year-to-date from a year ago. Nelsen said that reflects a real estate market that is seeing homes of greater value selling.

He also said sales tax collections are up 6 percent year-to-date from a year ago.

The county is also on target to receive its projected income from the new casino tax, Nelsen said. The county just received a quarterly payment of $752,000 for that.

Overall, Nelsen said if things proceed as they are, the county will still need to use some of its reserves, but that amount will likely be around $500,000 rather than the originally projected $1.3 million. He still expects the county to be able to refrain from using any reserves in 2014. In 2015, the county will be hit with a 27th payday, because of the calendar, and that is also expected to keep the county from having extra funds to use, he added.

During the Public Works Committee meeting, members recommended Council adopt several resolutions regarding contracts for the county’s pavement maintenance program. The communities of Akron, Bath, Copley, Norton and Richfield Village are participating in various aspects, such as resurfacing, asphalt rejuvenation and road striping.

The committee also recommended a contract with Perrin Asphalt for the Ghent and North Cleveland-Massillon roads resurfacing project in Bath in an amount not to exceed $873,190. The project will use Ohio Department of Transportation and Ohio Public Works Commission funds, according to Heidi Swindell, of the Engineer’s Office.

Council will meet April 29 at 4:30 p.m. for caucus, followed by the regular meeting in Council Chambers on the seventh floor of the Ohio Building, 175 S. Main St.

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