Throughout the last few weeks, the City Manager has responded to questions from the online “Ask the City Manager” form and at informal meetings around the community about the income tax issue on the November 6 ballot and other matters. The first part of this series can be read here. The second part, provided here, follows up with more frequently asked questions about a variety of City issues.
A good number of residents have thanked me for last week’s update summarizing the questions I have been asked thus far, and some other common questions have emerged since then.
Below, I have summarized the common questions I have been asked by at least two residents during these question and answer sessions, and I offer my response.
1. What is the status of the Loveland Station development in the downtown? When can we see some development taking place?
In September, the City’s Community Improvement Corporation (essentially, the City’s economic development arm, but a separate legal entity) signed a letter of intent with Rookwood Builders, a prospective developer. The letter of intent gives Rookwood 90 days for them to determine if, while meeting the City’s standards, this could become a viable project for them. This 90 day period will expire on December 20th.
Two primary matters need to be resolved in this due diligence period. First, the City is working with CSX Railroad to see about acquiring an adjacent vacated rail spur property which is between the active rail line and the project site. This strip of land is required for parking to supplement the parking that will be available on the Loveland Station property. Thus far, the railroad has been very responsive to the City’s inquiries about this vacated rail spur, and we hope their cooperation will continue. The second issue is the developer getting financing for the project. If lending institutions were too lenient up to 2008, some believe they have gone to the other extreme since. But City staff remains optimistic, and Rookwood is a very credible and credit-worthy developer.
The advances made last year are not wasted. Zoning is in place, which is a huge hurdle. The plan is mostly defined and agreed to by the parties. The City has made good progress on figuring out the necessary terms and conditions of this deal, so if the due diligence works out as hoped, ground could be broken in early 2013.
Clearly, residents are eager for development to happen and a bit frustrated that it has not happened so far. The more I ponder this, however, the more I realize that the City could have development occur tomorrow by simply lowering our standards. I don’t think that is in the community’s best interest, though. We would rather do this right than do it fast. And the financial pressure this delay presents is not nearly as significant as the state budget cuts, so it seems that the better course of action is to stay the course, maintain our high standards, and do it right.
2. What is the status of Loveland’s pension system and will there be more costs for retiree costs down the road?
The City of Loveland does not have its own pension system. City employees are in either the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) or the Ohio Police and Fire (OPF) pension system if the employee is a sworn, full-time police officer. Loveland-Symmes firefighters are not public employees and are not in either plan; instead, they have private retirement accounts.
All the retirement rules and funding requirements are determined at the state level, not locally.
New pension laws were recently enacted to improve the funding of all state pension systems, including OPF and OPERS. None of the changes will increase the cost to the City, so pension law changes or state pension shortfalls are not part of the City’s financial challenges that led to the tax increase being placed on the ballot in November.
City Council’s official position, which was adopted by a resolution of Council in 2011, is that any changes to state pension systems should not cost the local government any more money. If pension funds need adjustment, either employees should pay more or benefits should be reduced. This position has been communicated to Loveland’s two state senators and two state representatives.
3. Who will pay the additional income tax if it is approved, and who will not?
Any tax affects people differently, and the proposed 0.25% increase in income tax will have differing impacts on residents depending on whether they are retired, work in another community, or are unemployed.
Retirees do not pay municipal income tax. If the tax is approved November 6th, those who are retired will pay no additional tax.
Those who are not working and therefore have no earned income will not have to pay any income tax unless they have earned income. Unemployment benefits are not subject to Loveland City income tax.
Residents commuting to communities like Cincinnati, Blue Ash, and Sharonville where they already pay 1.25% in income tax or more (2.1%, 1.25 and 1.50%, respectively) will not have to pay additional tax to the City of Loveland because they already pay 1.25% or more where they work and the City of Loveland will continue to offer a full credit for taxes paid elsewhere.
Residents commuting to communities like Evendale (1.2%) where they pay more than 1% today but less than 1.25% will see a modest increase in their tax. So, a resident commuting to Evendale will pay 1.2% to Evendale and have to pay the City of Loveland 0.05% so that their total municipal income tax is 1.25%.
Residents working in a community with a 1% tax rate, no municipal income tax, or working inside the City of Loveland will see their tax rate increase 0.25% to 1.25%.
The City estimates 15% of our community’s households are retirees, so they will have no additional tax burden if the tax is passed. The City estimates 37% of households have income from employers in communities like Cincinnati or Blue Ash where they already pay 1.25% or more in municipal income tax and will not have to pay more. Thus, 52% of Loveland households will not have to pay more in municipal income tax if this tax is approved because retirees do not pay income tax and the City’s reciprocity for taxes paid elsewhere avoids double taxation.
Moreover, more than half of the additional revenue generated from the 0.25% increase if the voters approve it will be paid by people who commute into our community for work but who do not live here.
Council was very deliberate with the policy choice of how this tax impacted retirees (it does not), commuters, and employees working here.
4. Why does the City have its own City Engineer? Does the City need such a position or could it be contracted out?
The City has had a City Engineer on staff since late 2004, and the position was created by eliminating a vacant Assistant Public Works Director position. Having an in-house City Engineer did not increase the overall size of the Public Works Department, and in fact, benefits the City tremendously.
Having a City Engineer on staff means the City spends less on consulting engineers. The City Engineer is licensed by the State of Ohio and has the necessary credentials to do in-house design, mapping, project management, construction management, and customer response. The City Engineer can go out in the field to meet with a resident concerned about a drainage issue or a contractor who is installing a new water line for the City and needs an engineer to make a judgment call about how the line needs to be installed. Bringing out a consulting engineer at $125 to $175 per hour is not only more expensive, but it is less responsive to the customer needs and field conditions.
One of the best measures of the value of having an in-house civil engineer as opposed to a contracted position is to analyze how much Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC) grant and loan money the City has obtained since 2004. The City is now ranked fourth in all of Hamilton County (where the City competes for funding), behind only Cincinnati, Hamilton County and the City of Wyoming. Loveland’s City Engineer continues to bring in large grants and zero percent loans that are disproportionate to Loveland’s size or population. So, having an in-house engineer means that Loveland is obtaining more funding from outside the community to invest in our infrastructure. In short, it pays to have an in-house city engineer.
In summary, the City has gone away from a contracted out engineer model because having a City Engineer on staff leverages more grant dollars, is more responsive to the resident, and leads to better field decisions which cost less money. The City Engineer position is basically instead of an Assistant Public Works Director, so having an in-house engineer did not increase the City’s overall staffing size (and certainly added to the skill base of the Department).
5. Why does the City have a K9 dog for the Police Department? Is this really needed and how often does the K9 dog get deployed?
Loveland is fortunate to have a K9 officer, Sergeant Jose Alejandro, and his canine partner, Azar. The City received a private grant to acquire the dog, and the annual cost of the K9 program is about $10,000. This is approximately $1,600 for the care and feeding of the dog and $8,000 in pay for Sergeant Alejandro for training, overtime, and similar expenses each year.
The K9 program is not slated for elimination despite the budget challenges the City faces because the program is extremely beneficial. The K9 is what police officers refer to as a “force multiplier”. Azar can do things police officers simply cannot do, ranging from tracking fleeing suspects to smelling illegal drugs.
For instance, in April of this year, Police Officer Kevin Corbett observed a stolen car while running traffic enforcement on East Loveland Avenue. The vehicle had been stolen during a home invasion robbery in Cincinnati just the day before, and had four armed youth in the car. The officer followed the vehicle through Loveland into Miami Township where the suspects panicked, drove the vehicle into a back yard to get away, and crashed the stolen car into a tree. Officer Corbett apprehended one suspect immediately and the other three fled into the woods.
Officer Alejandro and his K9 partner Azar responded within minutes and began tracking the fleeing suspects. The K9 unit tracked two suspects in the thickly wooded ravine area and apprehended both of them in the woods behind a residence. The final suspect was apprehended by Police Captain Sean Rahe and Police Chief Tim Sabransky who responded as well. The suspects had discarded an illegal firearm in the woods and the loaded firearm was also recovered by Azar.
This event happened a few months ago in Loveland. Having a K9 on our force was the difference between arresting all four suspects and recovering the gun used just the day before in a home invasion, and a number of possible alternative outcomes. Just like most policing tools, such as a police officer’s firearm or a taser, the K9 is not used every day. But when you need a K-9, having one is invaluable.
For many years, the Loveland Police Department’s patrol vehicle has been the Ford Crown Victoria. In 2012, Ford Motor Company discontinued production of this model for police vehicles, so the City had no option other than to select a new vehicle as its patrol car.
The Loveland Police Department researched what other agencies were doing in light of Ford’s decision and identified other vehicles that are “pursuit-rated” and can be used as an alternative to the Crown Victoria. This research showed that the Tahoe was the best alternative for the LPD, and so the City has acquired three Tahoes in 2012 to replace three outgoing Crown Vics. This will start the process of converting the entire fleet to Tahoes as older Fords are replaced at the end of their useful life.
The Tahoe is only $2,088 more expensive to purchase than the Crown Victoria. Its operating costs including fuel are the same as the Crown Victoria. And the Tahoe is planned to last one to two years longer than the Crown Vic, meaning that the total cost of the vehicle over its life cycle will be less than the outgoing police cruiser.
In addition, the Tahoe has a number of advantages over a sedan, such as its durability, larger storage capacity for equipment, higher profile for police officer visibility, and all-weather capabilities. Other area police agencies nearby will be making similar decisions about their police vehicles, so Loveland is very typical in moving to the SUV as its police cruiser.
So, the move from a sedan to a SUV was driven by a decision made in Detroit, and is not a decision which will cost the City much more money over the life of the vehicle.