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Pry: Economy continues to challenge county

3/20/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Summit County Executive Russ Pry is shown at right as he answers questions posed by M.L. Schultze during his annual State of the County address March 14.
Photo: Kathleen Folkerth
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Summit County Executive Russ Pry talked jobs, development and what the county is doing to help children and teens in need during his annual State of the County address March 14.

In a change of format from previous years, Pry sat down on stage with WKSU reporter M.L. Schultze, who asked him a series of questions about the county’s economic status and how programs Pry has implemented are faring. Schultze said Pry was not told in advance what questions she would be asking at the annual Akron Press Club luncheon event, which took place at the John S. Knight Center.

How the county is weathering the effects of the recent recession was approached first, and Pry said that continues to be a challenge. There has been some positive news, though, he said.

“We ended up with $100.2 million in General Fund revenue last year, and that’s the first time since 2007 that we’ve seen an overall increase in those General Fund revenues,” he said.

He added that sales tax was up for the fourth year in a row and conveyance and property transfer tax collections also were higher.

Pry said casino revenue came in as the county projected at $3 million, which is actually much lower than the state’s estimate of $7.5 million. The additional funding has not come anywhere near making up for what the county has lost in the state’s Local Government Fund, he added.

“That leaves a hole we are trying to get out of,” he said.

Interest income also has been less than it had been years ago, Pry said. But he noted he’s happy the county’s reliance on reserves continues to decline, with $300,000 in reserves used last year. He also touted the fact that county agencies used $1.7 million less than was budgeted in 2013.

His No. 1 priority, Pry said, is continuing to foster job growth in the county. He wants to continue to assist county residents faced with barriers such as a criminal record.

“We need to get those people working,” he said.

The Department of Job and Family Service’s (DJFS) participation in the Connecting the Dots program, which assists teens who will be emancipating from the foster care system, also is part of this effort, as it helps participants gain job-readiness skills, Pry said.

The county executive also used his address to announce that a long anticipated plan to consolidate the DJFS offices is soon to be a reality. The county has worked with Akron Phoenix Development Co. to lease office and administrative space in what was the former Firestone tire manufacturing and technical center building at 1180 S. Main St. in Akron.

The result is that DJFS, currently with operations in four locations, will be located under one roof. In addition, Pry said the Department of Environmental Services also would be moved into the renovated space from the department’s current State Road offices in Cuyahoga Falls. The site will have free parking as well.

The moves, which are expected to take place in mid-2015, will free up Downtown Akron space that could be used by the Austen BioInnovation Institute, Pry said. As for the State Road property, the county will work with Falls Mayor Don Walters to find new tenants or a new use for the building, which also will put it back on the tax rolls and benefit both the county and the city, he said.

Pry added Summit County Council would be presented with a resolution for the plan at its March 17 meeting.

Touching on an issue Pry raised last year, Schultze asked about infant mortality in the county and what is being done to address it. Pry said current rates in some parts of the county are “completely unacceptable.”

The Summit County Collaboration for Better Health Outcomes has been formed by 38 local agencies, he added, and will be meeting in April to develop strategies to move forward on the problem.

Other topics Pry spoke about included:

  • The arts and cultural assessment completed by the Knight Foundation and GAR Foundation, which showed Akron has hundreds of arts organizations that are “disjointed.” He noted that a tax to fund those organizations, like the cigarette tax used in Cuyahoga County, may not be a long-term solution because it’s not sustainable as smoking rates decline.
  • Infrastructure improvements, such as work to extend sewers in Green for Phase III of an industrial park at the Akron-Canton Airport. He also noted that the need for sewers in Peninsula due to failing septic systems is becoming a major concern. “There’s not a lot of quick ways to get sewers to Peninsula,” he said.
  • Flooding and concerns of residents. He noted that water solutions should be based on the watershed and not along the boundaries of communities, and lauded work that Barberton, Norton and Copley are doing to address the issue there through the Wolf Creek Conservancy District.
  • The Moving Ohio Forward demolition program and efforts of the Summit County Land Reutilization Corporation, which he said has resulted in the demolition of 800 vacant or abandoned homes in the county.
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