Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the state of the city address delivered Monday by Amherst mayor Mark Costilow.
“2017 was a good year for the city of Amherst. We successfully met our goals for construction, maintenance, and level of service that we proposed last year. We have started our journey into the future with needed upgrades to our technology. We are continuing to provide the quality of safety and services residents are accustomed to receiving. Our infrastructure continues to receive ongoing improvements.
“These are significant accomplishments, all made while sticking to the budget. I will now share with you a snapshot of some of our 2017 accomplishments along with where we are headed into the future. This is my annual state of the city report.
“Amherst citizens, city council, guests, and members of the press: The state of our city is strong.
“Let me begin with our financial strength. I have long firmly believed that the city needs to operate and spend within its means. I take this very seriously! Last year, I presented a balanced budget and we lived within that budget and again finished the year in the black. The city continued to provide high quality services and safety forces, and complete many projects, all while living within our means.
“The city’s utilities directly affect everyone in our city and I take seriously the concerns of our residents and business customers. I am confident that we are providing the best service at the most affordable rates possible.
“To ensure this, last year we contracted with Courtney and Associates to complete an electric rate and capital expenditure study. The study shows that to retain the reliability of our utilities into the future, the rates will need to be adjusted over the next few years. Contrary to belief, there has been no increase to date. Some may feel bills were high over the winter, but that has been due to higher energy usage, not higher rates.
“Our electric rates are made up of two parts: the electric rate and the PPA. When the electric rate and the PPA are added together it equals the total per kilowatt charge. The study showed that the electric rate has not been adjusted since 1984. Soon the electric rate will be raised and the PPA will be adjusted downward accordingly to near or below zero. When added together this will be the total kilowatt charge.
“Amherst now enjoys and will continue to enjoy very competitive rates. I encourage you to do as I do and compare the rates on the (public utilities commission of Ohio) website. There are a number of communities listed and you will be pleasantly surprised how well our rates compare. The same process will be done when adjusting the water rate and lowering the WSA to near or below zero.
“The city is always striving to continuously improve utility services. Last year the electric department compiled an inventory listing every utility pole the city owns. The poles were all inspected, assigned a number, a condition assessment was performed, and their GPS locations were recorded. Poles that were in the worst condition, about 100, have already been replaced by our electric department.
“(Joe) Szabo, the electric department foreman, retired last year. Rich Smith has been promoted from his position as lead lineman to foreman. To provide the best service to our residents, and to further meet the future needs of the department, the city has taken on two new positions of lineman apprentices.
“Another project, the installation of the AMI utility metering system, is underway. The first phase is establishing the network infrastructure, followed later in April by the installation of new electric meters. This will guarantee a more current, consistent, and accurate billing of our utilities and it will pay for itself in short time. More importantly, our customers will also have more information available about their utility usage in real time, allowing them to make better energy and water consumption choices. It will even give us a better ability to detect water leaks.
“Every water meter in the city will also be replaced. Because most water meters are in basements, the water department will be working hard along with an outside contractor, Bellwether, contacting residents to gain access and replace meters. This meter change-out is a complicated process and I am asking everyone’s patience during this. Even with these complexities, I will assure you our city will have the policies in place to make this as seamless as possible for our customers, and at all times ensuring billing to be correct. If at any time anyone has a question or a concern, please contact the utilities office.
“City workers are out fixing potholes all winter long. Last year’s purchase of the Duropatch machine has significantly improved pothole and basic road repairs by using a more durable material than cold patch. Not only do we fix potholes as we find them ourselves, we have followed our city pothole repair policy mandating that once a pothole is reported, it is fixed within two working days.
“The Duropatch machine will also be an important tool to add one more year of life into Cooper Foster Park from State Route 58 east to the city limits. This stretch of road is in need of continuing improvement and has been in the works for many years. All indicators are pointing to bidding this job out at the end of this year for construction in 2019. This is over a $5 million project shared with the city of Lorain. When completed, it will add a lane to the entire length and make much needed stormwater improvements. (The Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and the Ohio Public Works Commission) will contribute approximately $1.5 million of the estimated $2.5 million of Amherst’s share of the project.
“This has been a tough winter and as such has taken a toll on our salt reserves. Keeping enough salt on hand has become a concern. I am considering the construction of a second salt barn. This would allow the city to keep more salt on site without the need to store it outside under a large tarp.
“This year’s regular street repair program is the largest in recent history. The nearly $2 million in street repairs will be prepared and bid out soon.
“A nearly $3 million storm sewer infrastructure improvement project is planned for this year and will also be bid out soon. This is a project very similar to the sewer interceptor that was installed near town hall in 2012.
“The city’s safety forces are excellent. This year’s budget allows the full staffing of both the police and fire departments. The police department is adding two full-time officers and one full-time dispatcher, which will cut back on the use of part time positions. The police department would also like to add a full-time civilian supervisor to its department and will be bringing an ordinance to council for approval. One of Amherst’s finest was deployed overseas in the military and has safely returned to us for duty. I would like to thank him for serving, and welcome him home.
“The police department would like to remind residents to sign up for WENS. This is the Wireless Emergency Notification System. During emergencies specific to your location, this system will notify you by calling your phone. More information can be found on the police department’s website. The police department would also like to remind us, “if you see something, say something.” Please call the police department if you see something unusual or suspicious in your neighborhood. The best way to keep our community safe is by us all working together.
”The bond issue that funded the police department construction is due to expire this year. This should reflect a savings on next year’s real estate taxes as the debt to build the police station will be paid off.
“The fire department provides exceptional emergency response services due in large part to its fine personnel and the equipment they use. The fire department facilities and equipment are all kept up to date and maintained solely through the funding of a tax levy that was renewed last year. I want to sincerely thank everyone for supporting the fire department so that they may continue to provide the best emergency response services possible.
“Every five years, (the insurance services office) inspects our fire department. Their safety rating effects fire insurance rates in our city. This past year we have worked very hard to improve our already good rating of five. All indications appear that our rating may be lowered to a four, which is good news for all of us, but extremely good for businesses. If our rating improves, I will be reaching out to all Amherst businesses to make them aware of this change so that they are able to reach out to their insurance carriers and seek to take advantage of these savings.
“Existing businesses are growing and new ones are coming to Amherst. In a prior state of the city, I asked, ‘What can a mayor do to bring new business to our town?’ It made me think a bit and I have realized how important our existing businesses are. I have been reaching out to major employers throughout the city and many are showing signs of growth.
“In cooperation with University Hospitals Medical Center (Amherst Hospital to most of us), we have developed the Amherst Medical Center Leadership Council. This is a group of community leaders, myself, and University Hospital staff working together ensuring the hospital continues to meet the needs of Amherst and address where we as a community need the hospital to be in the future. Nordson Corporation has applied for building permits and is working on their facility thereby bringing more jobs to Amherst. I toured Tyson Foods, Formerly Pierre Foods, and discussed the possibility of their expanding and adding to their existing 600 jobs already here in Amherst.
“The city has formed a joint economic district with the township and we have had our first board meeting. There are already talks of expanding the district into an area of already existing businesses meaning an immediate new tax base for Amherst
“The building department had their busiest year in recent history. There was over $21 million in new construction, including 42 new homes in Amherst last year. To put that into perspective, that is three times more than 2016, which in itself was a very good year. This year already there have been 16 new home permits issued, construction of a new pre-K through third grade school will begin, and the renovation of the former Central School building is slated for this year. This is showing promise that 2018 will be another good year for the building department and the city.
“There were 15 new businesses in Amherst last year. Our beautiful and historic downtown district is thriving. Downtown building occupancy is near 100 percent. The (community improvement corporation) is reviewing proposals seeking a developer to build a new building downtown and grow our historic district. There are plans to improve access to parking south of the railroad tracks on Maple Avenue.
“The city’s sidewalk repair program is well under way. Last year every sidewalk in the city was evaluated and letters were sent out to address’s where repairs were recommended. Bids will go out soon for up to $500,000 in repairs and some residents will receive letters informing them of the necessity to make repairs according to ordinance. I expect this to be a five-year program to completion. There is a webpage dedicated to this program on the city’s website. I am asking that property owners call the building department with any questions.
“The city’s technology upgrade is going well. The connectivity will soon be complete. Most employees have received initial training of the new phones and have been a big part in the planning and set-up of the new system. Last year the city developed a new IT department. This department is doing a great job coordinating this large project and keeping it on time and under budget. The IT department has been funded with overhead allocations causing each department to pay its fair share. Within this department’s budget are plans to keep all the city’s technology up to date with the latest hardware, software, and security.
As I said earlier, the state of our city is strong!
By continuing to work together, Amherst will remain the place where we all want to live, run our businesses, and we are all proud to call our home town. Thank you.”