Independence officials talk business additions, policing upgrades at state of city address

by Laura Bednar

Independence Mayor Greg Kurtz, along with department heads, emerged from two years of pandemic protocols to give the first state of the city address since 2019 on Oct. 7, in the Civic Center.

Kurtz began the address by stating, “We have emerged [from the pandemic] stronger, smarter and more adaptable than ever before.”

Economic Development Director Jessica Hyser gave an overview of her department since beginning her position in June 2020. She said two additions made to the team were City Planner Anne Lynch and Economic Development Coordinator Irene Kalal. Several new businesses have come to Independence, including Garland Industries, which has more than doubled its payroll from $4 million to $9 million since moving to the city. The city retained CBIZ, which will occupy a soon-to-be-built Class A office building on Rockside Woods Boulevard with a $20-million payroll. Gray Media, which owns news stations like Channel 19, is anticipating a move to Independence with a broadcast station to be built on Rockside Woods Boulevard.

Hyser then outlined future projects like a columbarium wall and new cul de sac at Maple Shade Cemetery and a Hemlock Trail comfort station, which would include restrooms. In the spring, residents can expect to see way-finding signs throughout the city, with the ultimate plan of creating a map that divides the city into four color-coded quadrants for easy navigation.

Police Chief Robert Butler said officers conducted more traffic stops so far this year than in 2020 and 2021 combined. There was also a 25% increase in drunk driver arrests. Butler said officers have helped in arresting suspects responsible for a bank robbery and recent carjackings in the city, stating that crime occurs partly because of where the city is located.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” Butler said.

The department has added a night jailer, who books suspects dropped off at the station, allowing the arresting officer to remain on the streets. Rev. Michele Thompson of Rockside Church has also joined the department as the police chaplain.

Butler said 25% of the officers participated in crisis intervention team training, which teaches officers to de-escalate situations involving people who have mental illnesses. He aims to have the entire department trained in CIT by 2024. Looking ahead, Butler said he will work with city council members on building a new police station to replace the existing facility.

“We need a station that’s going to grow with us,” he said.

The community services department has given the Civic Center a facelift with new atrium furniture, rugs and fresh paint in the banquet rooms. Community Services Director Emily Thomas said that the department also plans to renovate the kitchen connected to the banquet rooms, which would include a dishwasher. The department would then offer cooking classes for all ages in the renovated space. On an interpersonal level, community services staff received mental health certification to work with any resident with certain behaviors or who needs help.

The recreation department has also seen renovations like a new bocce ball court, which will have shade coverings in the near future. The department is looking to expand security cameras on the city’s campus and potentially create a dog park for pet owners.

From a financial perspective, Kurtz showed a graph representing the city’s income tax over the past four years. From 2018-2020, income tax was between $33.5 million and $33.8 million. It spiked to $35 million in 2021, and is currently estimated at $34 million for 2022. He also added that the 3% hotel tax the city receives from each bed rented was down during the pandemic but is on the rise again. ∞