by Erica Peterson
Independence City Council spent three hours at its annual Saturday morning strategic planning meeting on Jan. 23 discussing its 2021 vision for the city. Topping the list at the Zoom meeting was safety and security, maintenance-free housing and partnering more with the school district.
Before looking forward, Finance Director Vern Blaze shared an update on the city’s finances, specifically the economic effects of the pandemic. The city’s annual municipal income tax revenue, a large chunk of its budget, has stayed between $33 million and $34 million the past five years, he said.
“I think we would all agree that we were blessed in 2020 to achieve that $33.87 million income tax receipt level that we did, given what took place last year across the planet,” he said. “Where that’s going to end up this year is anybody’s guess.”
The city was hardest hit in its hotel/motel lodging tax revenue, which dropped 50 percent in 2020, Blaze said. Generally, the city receives a little over $100,000 a month from those taxes, he said. That dropped to barely $50,000 a month last year.
But overall, lodging tax is a small revenue source for the city.
“I don’t want to say we can afford to have them drop, but if anything is going to drop, I would rather have this category drop like it did, 50 percent, than the income tax dropping 50 percent,” Blaze said.
Several council members discussed the importance of prioritizing what the city needs to move forward.
“Because we are blessed with a pleasing income tax level, I would say that sometimes it’s very easy to get deflected away from the needs and moving in the direction of wants,” said council member Dale Veverka. “We have to really keep our fine focus on what the needs could be rather than what the wants are.”
Council member Jim Trakas agreed, saying they should concentrate on what’s needed in the near future. “If we can get a year or two out of extra vehicles or equipment, let’s see if we can do that,” he said. “… We, of course, need to provide the tools to our city employees to do the job they need to do, but let’s also see if we can maintain what we have well and be cautious about adding in the next few years.”
Including maintenance-free housing in the city’s downtown redevelopment plans was on many council members’ priority lists.
Council member Chris Walchanowicz said the first step for downtown development needs to be housing “for our current residents who want to move out of a bigger home and not have to take care of yards.”
Council member Tom Narduzzi agreed maintenance-free housing must be a priority, for not only seniors but young professionals and singles. “It saddens me to think of the people who have moved away that have given this city so much because we had nowhere for them to go,” he said.
Added Narduzzi, “Times have changed, and people have changed. People want different opportunities for different times in their lives, and we only offer one. I firmly believe that maintenance-free living is something that we have to look into, and I don’t think it will change the way we look at our town as a small-time town with a lot of charm.’’
Veverka said he was “apprehensive” about using the city’s limited amount of property for smaller homes that would serve only a small portion of the community.
Vice Mayor David Grendel conceded the city can’t meet the needs of everybody with its downtown property, but accommodating those looking to downsize is key to preventing more residents from leaving the city.
“We really don’t have a whole lot of land for million-dollar homes,” Grendel said. “I think the need is to have quality housing but housing that fits the needs of not only our residents but other residents, too. We should be welcoming with the opportunity.”
When the long-discussed retail downtown development takes place, Grendel wants to see a buffer between the housing and the businesses.
“We have been talking about that for years,’’ he said. “The city owns a lot of that land, so I think the time has come and we put plans and discussion to action this year.”
Council member Kathleen Kapusta agreed: “I think we need to bite the bullet and move forward and be leaders.’’
Several Council members cited safety and security as another priority area.
“The homicide at the Sunoco station on Rockside, the armed robbery at the Winking Lizard, and vehicle thefts from driveways strike fear in the hearts of our residents,” Synek said. “We have to work to restore the public’s confidence in the safety and security of our city.”
Narduzzi wants to see a stronger police presence on the Rockside Road corridor.
“Although Rockside Road is the city’s lifeblood, it does bring unwanted challenges,” he said. “We have seen over the past three to four years events that have taken place that we would have never thought would have happened here in Independence.”
He favors funding for police personnel, equipment, training and communication.
Veverka, too, would like to see money invested in personnel, saying getting more officers on the street is “critical.”
Trakas suggested considering neighborhood safety meetings and neighborhood watch programs to “proactively engage our citizens in their own protection.”
Partnership with schools
A priority for several council members is continuing to find ways to partner with Independence Local Schools.
“My No. 1 most important strategic objective is, and everlastingly will be, to find a way to share the city’s bountiful financial resources with the Independence schools,” said council member Kenn Synek, a former school board member.
He cited a revenue-sharing plan between the city and schools that he floated last year.
Kapusta said input from the school district on any plan is critical. “We need to design a plan and a response based upon what they tell us their needs are as well, not just maybe what we think they are,” she said.
Trakas suggested city-school partnerships that not only leverage tax dollars to benefit both, but encourage students to return after graduation to live and work in Independence.
That could include creating an internship program with local businesses and working with the private sector to launch a student loan program, where students major in areas that would benefit a local business then work there when they graduate.
Grendel wants to see the city continue to help provide emotional and mental health services to the schools.
“It saddens me greatly when I hear or see another suicide that has taken place by our young,” he said. “We should continue to strive to get help to these youth to let them know that people do care, not only their family members but people in the community.”
Feature image photo caption: At their annual strategic planning meeting, city leaders laid out their vision for Independence. Several council members mentioned boosting police staffing. Photo by E. Peterson