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RES proposal going before Akron voters

9/5/2013 - South Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

DOWNTOWN AKRON — At a special meeting convened during its summer break, Akron City Council voted to place a charter amendment on the Nov. 5 General Election ballot that, if approved, would allow the city to donate its Recycled Energy System (RES) to Akron Children’s Hospital.

The deadline to place a measure on the ballot is today, Sept. 6, before the end of Council’s summer break. The city charter requires voter approval for the transfer of city utility systems.

The proposed donation of the RES — which provides steam heating and chilled-water cooling to Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Medical Center, city and county offices and about 50 customers total downtown — comes as Children’s embarks on a 10-year capital campaign that includes the construction of a critical care tower, slated to be completed in April 2015. According to city and hospital officials, Children’s would like to continue to utilize the RES rather than construct a new heating and cooling plant, which would cost about $6 million.

If voters approve the measure, Children’s would seek a long-term owner or operator and make upgrades to the RES needed for it to continue to support the hospital.

City officials say the city, which has subsidized the operation of the RES to the tune of nearly $28.5 million since 2007, cannot afford to undertake the repairs and maintenance needed for Children’s to have adequate heating capacity for its expansion.

Speaking to Council at the special meeting, Tim Ziga, Children’s associate general counsel, said the hospital needs the system to be dependable and have redundancies, which would benefit downtown customers as well.

“This is a very critical concern for the hospital,” he said.

Ziga said the hospital needs to have an answer on the transfer of the RES by the end of the year as construction continues.

“We’re at a tipping point from the hospital standpoint,” he said.

Mayor Don Plusquellic stressed the donation of the RES would be good for Children’s and good for the Akron community as a whole. He pointed to the involvement of William Considine, Children’s president and CEO, as evidence that the move is right for Akron.

“Bill is as dedicated and committed a person that I’ve ever worked with and ever seen in this community,” Plusquellic said. “Children’s has come forward to be a partner … so that voters knew it’s good for the city and it’s good for Children’s Hospital.”

Plusquellic said Children’s can be trusted to achieve the delicate balance needed to set fair costs and retain users.

The meeting grew contentious when Plusquellic was pressed by a handful of Council members on his assertion that the system doesn’t have monetary value and shouldn’t be sold rather than donated.

Council members Linda Omobien (D-at large), Michael Williams (D-at large) and Bruce Kilby (D-Ward 2) questioned Plusquellic on the proposal.

In response to Omobien and Williams, respectively, Plusquellic said there was no appraisal of the RES undertaken and that, while the RES loses money overall, its revenue is roughly $10 million to $11 million per year.

Williams suggested that if the RES generates that kind of revenue, it would be of some value.

Plusquellic repeatedly stated that if any Council member wanted to appraise and place a value on the RES, to do so, but to be prepared to stand up behind the eventuality that the cost of the RES would be passed onto Children’s patients and their parents.

Williams said his questions, which he said were coming through him from his constituents, stem from his uncertainty as to “what is the future obligation to the taxpayers of Akron as it relates to the system.”

“The answer,” Plusquellic quickly responded, “is nothing more than what we have now.”

Plusquellic said that details of the arrangement would be worked out between the city and Children’s, and, if voters approve the donation, the actual transfer of the asset would come back before Council for further discussion and examination before it’s finalized.

Kilby also said he was doubtful of the mayor’s certainty without an appraisal or a bidding process that the system is not valuable. Plusquellic fired back that when the city attempted to lease out the RES in 2010, Kilby opposed that, too.

“There isn’t a value in the way that you’re trying to convince people there is,” Plusquellic said, characterizing Kilby’s comments and questions as campaign rhetoric.

Kilby said he felt there were unanswered questions and that, because there was still a week before the Board of Elections deadline, Council should take further time with the ordinance; however, there was no motion made for time.

Amid some confusion regarding some of the procedures of the meeting, Council extracted itself from the discussion to vote. Council passed the ordinance placing the proposed donation on the ballot with a vote of 12-1, with Kilby dissenting.

Akron City Council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers on the third floor of the Akron Municipal Building, 166 S. High St. Committee meetings are set to begin at 2 p.m. that afternoon, also in Council Chambers.

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