Munroe Falls -- Recommendations to allow city officials to change the city's income tax credit without voter approval and to eliminate wards don't appear to be moving forward for voter approval.
The city's charter review commission recently made these proposals as amendments to the city's charter, subject to voter approval and City Council discussed them at a June 27 "workshop" meeting.
The majority of Council members said they had issues with the ward elimination recommendation and all said they opposed the tax credit proposal.
Council also discussed a recommendation to reduce the city's park board from nine to five members and make Council's representative to the board a voting member, with several options discussed, and a recommendation to allow the law director without voter approval to make changes to the charter, such as fixing typographical errors, that do not change the meaning or substance of the charter. Such changes would still be subject to Council's approval.
Ordinances to place the charter changes on the ballot were introduced at Council's June 20 meeting. Council has until Aug. 9, the deadline for filing issues with the Summit County Board of Elections for placement on the Nov. 7 general election ballot, to decide which amendments will go before the voters.
Council presently has four at-large and three ward seats.
Council President Steve Stahl said an argument for eliminating wards is that according to his research going back to the early 2000s, at-large races are more competitive.
"There has never been an at-large election that hasn't been contested. The majority of ward seats have been uncontested. I like contested races," said Stahl.
But other Council members said having ward seats guarantees every part of the city has at least some representation on Council.
"I think it's a mistake. I'm not for it at all," said Councilor Jim Iona.
Councilor Jenny Markovich noted that as it is, six of the current Council members live on the north side of the city, with only one, Ward 1 Representative Gary Toth, living on the south side. Toth and Councilors John Hegnauer, Mike Barnes and Chris Ritzinger also said they agree with Iona.
"I like the representation spread out in our city," said Ritzinger.
Commission members have said they made the recommendation because it was felt Munroe Falls may be too small to justify having wards.
"We talked about it being a small community," commission member Mike Serafin told Council.
He added, "It's not that radical of a change. Under the current situation, you could have five Council people from the same ward."
Tax credit issue opposed
The tax credit currently is at 100 percent, meaning that residents who work in a community that has the same or higher local income tax rate as Munroe Falls' 2.25 percent do not pay the Munroe Falls tax. Residents paying less than 2.25 percent to another community would pay the difference between the two tax rates to Munroe Falls.
City officials have said that even if the issue was placed on the ballot and voters approved it, there are no plans to change the tax credit.
Serafin said the recommendation came out of the city's recent financial crisis.
This past November, voters approved a 2-mill road improvement levy, but rejected an increase in the city's local income tax from 2 percent to 2.25 percent and a 2.8-mill police levy.
Voters approved both tax issues on the May ballot, but Serafin said the commission looked to the future when the city might again need an emergency revenue increase.
"We looked at what happened in November, the financial situation of the city," he said. "We wanted to have a longer view and the thing that struck us is because this is a bedroom community, there are very few financial tools that could be employed. This would be another tool that would help Council and the mayor should another financial situation occur it would almost be we would ask the voters to pre-approve a security blanket for the future."
But Council members unanimously said they believe that with voters approving three tax issues since last fall, now is not the time to request such an amendment.
"I think there could be real suspicion if we did it," said Stahl.
Markovich said it would be difficult explaining to voters why it is needed.
"I just think the timing is off," she said.
"I don't think taking it to the voters is appropriate at this time," said Toth.
Barnes said it also conflicts with his long-standing beliefs.
"I have been for any number of years totally opposed to a government body taxing its citizens without their vote. It's simply wrong," he said.
Mayor James Armstrong said it could be needed someday, but not now.
"The people entrusted us with additional revenues at the ballot box and I don't want them to get the wrong idea," he said.
Armstrong praised the commission for "thinking in advance," saying that what a charter review commission is supposed to do.
Voters may see a ballot issue in November regarding the number of park board members, but it may not be precisely what the commission recommended.
Council is considering a suggestion by Armstrong that the park board be cut to eight non-elected resident members, with the Council representative given voting powers.
Stahl said, "That gives them their nine [members]," but said he wants input from board members.
Serafin said the commission felt the city is too small to warrant a nine-member board, especially since a quorum of five members has been hard to come by at board meetings and it has been difficult to fill board positions.
Armstrong said just six of the board's nine seats are filled now.
"That seems to be something I'm constantly looking for, park board members," he said.
But Ritzinger said the board wants to remain at its current membership because it gives the board a committed group of volunteers. He said that if the dormant Friends of the Parks volunteer group could be revived, "that resolves that problem."
Stahl said he agrees that would be the "ultimate answer to the problem."
Barnes said he believes the board should be able to function with five members.
"When I was on park board, we did a lot with five people," he said. "It seems to me that five people, five active people, can do the brain work, the upfront work, and then it's up to them to recruit people to do specific tasks."
Markovich suggested that the number of members could be reduced to five, but each member would have an alternate member to fill in, just as the Council representative has an alternate.
"The thing I like about it is it gives you a flexibility if you cannot make a meeting and have an alternate that can," she said.
Iona said "it's hard to get volunteers."
"I like the idea of having a larger body, running the show. It's a commitment," he said.
Council members said they were fine with allowing the law director, with Council approval, to make non-substantive changes to the charter. Commission members have said the recommendation is based on a provision in Stow's charter.
"We're not breaking new ground," said Stahl.
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It's great to see that most Council members realize that there are no benefits to eliminating the wards in the city. Hopefully, the Council will begin to work at finding ways to help our city grow into something more than a "bedroom community" or a place to drive through (or be stuck in as a train passes) when you're on your way somewhere else.