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Mayor focuses on health care, environment

4/10/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

In state of the city address, Plusquellic urges hospitals to work together

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic delivered his State of the City address April 2.
Photo: Stephanie Kist
DOWNTOWN AKRON — More than an opportunity to review the city’s successes in 2013, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic’s State of the City address, delivered April 2 at the John S. Knight Center, looked to the future.

At times playful, at times earnest, Plusquellic talked about positioning Akron to function successfully in a swiftly changing world, and shaping the world that will welcome future generations.

The mayor opened his speech noting he has served 40 years now in public office. He was first elected to Akron City Council in 1973, and he is the city’s longest-serving mayor, in office since 1987. He joked he has garnered a reputation for “saying wild things” at his annual address, and acknowledged that at least some of the 650 attendees in the sold-out crowd were there for the same reason they would go to a NASCAR race — “to see if the cars crash.”

But although he said in the speech’s early moments “I want to have fun here today,” Plusquellic held true to what he said has been a hallmark of his time as an elected official.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over my 40 years in public life challenging the status quo,” he said.

Much of his address did just that.

As President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act goes into effect — “nothing less than the most radical shift in national health care in over 60 years,” Plusquellic said — hospitals will face pressure to reduce costs while at the same time improve results, the mayor said.

“We need locally to develop our own local strategy which puts our citizens first and maximizes the existing outstanding local health systems here,” Plusquellic said.

Akron has enjoyed an unusual arrangement wherein local people are in charge of the hospitals’ governing boards, he said.

“In today’s health care environment, that is something we can no longer take for granted,” Plusquellic said, adding later, as he referenced the departure of major rubber companies from Akron, “We cannot take anything for granted, and if history tells us anything, it’s that change is going to happen.”

To that end, Plusquellic challenged what he characterized as wasteful duplication between the two adult hospitals in Akron, which persists due to a misplaced belief that competition in health care is necessary. He said he fears outside national interests turning Akron into a new “Gettysburg” and taking over local control, and suggested a local board be established to ensure the medical centers collaborate and improve efficiency while reducing costs.

Plusquellic didn’t focus just on the city’s medical centers, saying also that it might behoove local governments to eliminate duplications, too — an undertaking that Summit County Executive Russ Pry would be well suited to oversee, the mayor suggested.

“We are a community that needs to join together,” he said. “We are inextricably connected. And the sooner that suburbanites recognize that the world sees Stow and Green and Mogadore as ‘Akron’ or ‘Summit County,’ and the more we work together, the more everyone in the region will benefit. … I believe our grandchildren’s future will depend on the way we can become more effective in governing ourselves and more effective in dealing with and competing with the outside world.”

The mayor also spoke about the city’s massive undertaking to correct its combined sewer overflow (CSO) situation.

Plusquellic said he has been working since 1991 to find an acceptable and cost-effective way to deal with the issue, meeting obstacles by way of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in federal court.

Angering, Plusquellic said, “Now, keep in mind while the politically motivated naysayers have been telling people ‘Mayor Plusquellic hasn’t done anything,’ we have actually spent over $300 million on our sewer system just since I’ve been mayor.”

Those improvements, he said, have taken the sewer system from one that had 144 violations in 1986 to one that had no violations in 2012 and only one in 2013.

Late last year, city administration withdrew the Long Term Control Plan pending in federal court, in hopes of pursuing an Integrated Plan and reducing cost estimates of $1.4 billion to fix CSO.

“Akron deserves the same cost-saving mechanisms that the U.S. EPA finally started to publicly embrace in 2012. That’s why we withdrew the current plan and hope to participate in the Integrated Planning Process,” Plusquellic stated in his speech.

An Integrated Plan would also allow the city to incorporate emerging technology and “green” solutions into the projects. Based on conversations he has had with top EPA official Bob Perciasepe, Plusquellic said, “I’m very hopeful that we will make progress.”

Also during the speech, Plusquellic announced a new initiative called “Akron Values,” which he said is modeled on a program in Hamilton, Va., called “I-Value.”

The “Akron Values” program, he said, will gather input on community priorities and spending from groups of seniors and youth, as well as service organizations such as Kiwanis, Rotary and boards of trade.

“We’ll meet with those people first and then expand to assure that everyone has an opportunity to provide input and be able to have direct influence on our choices on how we prioritize and actually plan for the future,” he said. The program will be headed up by former Planning Director Warren Woolford and retired city official Rick Merolla. “As this rolls out, you’ll hear more about the details,” Plusquellic said. 

In other highlights of the speech, Plusquellic:

  • drew laughter when he noted that, for the first time, a Cuyahoga Falls mayor was in attendance, and he welcomed newly elected Mayor Don Walters, a Democrat, who unseated longtime Republican mayor Don Robart;
  • was asked during the question-and-answer session after the speech when he would allow food trucks to operate in Akron, and answered that it is a complicated issue and difficult to resolve in a way that is fair to both food truck operators and restaurateurs, but that City Council members Garry Moneypenny (D-Ward 10) and Jeff Fusco (D-at large) are working on a proposal to present shortly;
  • lauded the Akron Public Schools system and Superintendent David James for cutting-edge educational collaborations meant to position Akron’s youth for gainful employment in their future; and
  • gave special mention to the city’s police officers.

“Under the leadership of Police Chief Jim Nice, crime rates have gone down the last two years with the lowest number of police officers in decades. And it’s worth noting [the Akron Police Department] solved all of the murders but one last year, which is a tremendous task,” he said.

Following his nearly hour-long speech, the mayor answered questions submitted by audience members, including one about what he felt were his most important triumph and biggest disappointment.

He counted downtown development as his proudest accomplishment, but only in passing, as he answered the failure of his proposed Akron Scholarship Plan in 2008 remains his sorest loss. It was the most emotional moment of the address.

“I will go to my grave feeling guilty about the scholarship program,” he said of the initiative, which was defeated by voters, that would have funded college education for all of the city’s youth. “I will always hate myself for not having done that.”

The mayor’s speech, as prepared, can be accessed at www.akronohio.gov. A video of the speech as delivered can be viewed on the city’s You Tube channel at youtube/GxZBkWcOpvY.

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