City presents resident award, talks policing and economic development at state of the city address

by Laura Bednar

The Independence state of the city address on Oct. 7 featured the presentation of the city’s first-ever “Good Citizen Award.” Police Chief Robert Butler said the police department was in pursuit of a driver and passenger that had shoplifted in another city and ended up crashing the vehicle at the Independence McDonald’s at the intersection of Brecksville and Rockside roads.

Residents Mark and Meg Moreal asked police for a description of the suspects and were able to locate and track them from a safe distance while reporting their whereabouts to the police. The suspects are now in custody, due to their actions. The Moreals, 34-year residents, were honored with the Good Citizen Award.

Butler continued with an overview of the police department. The number of stolen vehicles has decreased but there has been an increase in traffic stops. There were eight thefts from automobiles in 2022 and none so far in 2023. Butler emphasized that officers are getting ahead of the crimes before they happen.

The police department is fully staffed and 75% of officers have completed Crisis Intervention Team training, with the remaining 25% to complete the training by the end of next year. Officers continue training in leadership, jujitsu and firearms among other topics. Butler participated in a 10-week FBI training program over the summer

“Officers have a warrior mindset but our heart is in the community,” said Butler. He noted community engagement this summer at the city pool and resident lemonade stands.

In conjunction with the law, the Mayor’s Court has seen a 97% increase in cases, which is a 20% increase compared to last year. 40% of the increased cases are related to drunk driving.

Clerk of Court Angie Zidanic noted the court works to prevent crime through programs like INDYAlive, formerly 25 & Alive, which aims to “care for, support and inspire our whole community through every stage of life.”

The fire department promoted Jason Fahl and Austin Dapsis to shift lieutenant positions, which allows there to be at least one officer on duty at all times. Fire Chief Steve Rega noted the department’s new technology the “emergency plug,” which disengages the voltage in an electric vehicle and keeps it still to allow for safe rescue operations. Other equipment includes a car fire blanket, electric vehicle cooling system and various containment systems – all to assist in emergencies involving lithium-ion batteries, which are used in cars and other devices.

Finally, the department purchased a new utility task vehicle, which is designed to fit in areas like the Hemlock Trail and the national park for search and rescue missions.

Economic Development Director Jessica Hyser outlined several businesses that have moved to the city. CBIZ will occupy its new headquarters building on Rockside Woods Boulevard in November. Faber-Castell, an arts and crafts product distributor, will occupy 140,000 square feet of a 260,000-square-foot office building on Rio Nero Drive. The Millcraft paper company will occupy the remaining space. Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, a collections agency, plans to move to the city and will bring a $20 million payroll.

Hyser said “wayfinding” banners have been installed throughout Rockside Road to color-code the quadrants in the district for easy navigation of commercial businesses. The department is holding food truck events on Rockside Road to find out from commercial employees “what makes the office an enticing place to be,” according to Hyser.

Finance Director Vern Blaze gave an overview of the city’s finances. Independence has a high rating from Moody’s Investment Services, meaning it has strong credit. The city’s outstanding debt has decreased from $31.9 million in 2020 to $20.2 million by the end of 2023. Cash balance has risen from $40 million in 2021 to $48.8 million in 2023. The state auditor’s 2022 Financial Health Indicators gave Independence a positive outlook rating.

“Independence’s best days are still ahead,” said Blaze.

Mayor Greg Kurtz noted that the Cleveland Cavaliers announced that the team is building a new practice facility in downtown Cleveland. Independence has maintained a partnership with the Cavs since 2007 with a practice facility on Brecksville Road. Kurtz said the partnership will continue through the end of 2026. After that, he said, “The city owns the land the facility is on; we have time to decide what to do with it.”

Vice Mayor David Grendel was honored for his service as vice mayor since 2016; city council member from 2000-2009 and 2014-2016; and school board member from 1984-1991 and again in 1993 until 1997. He has reached his term limits and cannot run for re-election to city council.

“My goal has been to move the city forward and treat people with respect,” said Grendel. ∞

Photo: Residents Meg and Mark Moreal (middle) were given the city’s first “Good Citizen Award” by Mayor Greg Kurtz (l) and Police Cheif Robert Butler (r). Photo courtesy of Ron Hollowell.