Council actions stayed in news
by DAVID DAVIS, Managing Editor
Jan 02, 2013 | 1285 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
2012: Year in Review
South Cleveland Community Center open a new swimming pool and splash park in July 2012. The new pool features a waterslide, aquatic climbing wall and splash park. The 25-meter pool and splash park replaced a 42 year-old pool troubled by maintenance problems and noncompliant with Americans with Disabilities Act.
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The year 2012 began sadly with the passing of former Cleveland City Councilwoman Sarah Westfield who died Jan. 7 at her home. Westfield, 74, was the first black woman elected to the City Council, which she served from 1998 until 2002.

Though Westfield was in the forefront of breaking through the racial barrier, Michelle Goldston was the first. She was elected to the Cleveland Board of Education in 1996. At the time of her election, she was the youngest person in Tennessee named to an elected position regardless of race or gender.

During the year that just ended, Council members wrestled with housing, transportation, growth and economic development. Those issues will be review separately. Much of the year, and this story, was taken up by budgets, budgeting long-term debt and debt policy.

The elected leaders approved three bonds on Jan. 23 to finance the terminal building at Cleveland Regional Jetport, north and south local interstate connector roads and the Whirlpool Industrial Access road. While the bonds were passed, the action immediately touched off a lengthy discussion on the city’s method of borrowing money — a discussion that continued periodically throughout much of the year.

Councilman Bill Estes said he was in favor of proceeding with all the three projects, but expressed concern about going through the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund without a competitive bidding process.

Estes said the very first statement in the city’s debt management plan says money will be borrowed at the lowest possible cost. He said he understood the need to rush to bond the Whirlpool Industrial Access Road, but not the airport terminal building nor the north and south local interstate connector roads on the agenda.

“We’ve been on the record forever: ‘We need to bid this out, we need to bid this out,’ not just debt service, but everything we do,” he said. “Here we are with two other bond issuances coming up that we are not bidding out.”

He said the Council has begged the school system for years to bid out construction “and here we are, not doing it.”

The discussion continued off and on through September when City Manager Janice Casteel advised the city officials that a financial adviser would be needed if the municipality incurred fixed-rate debt. At that time, the city had only variable-rate loans through the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund. That is the city’s only option after the Council terminated its professional services contract with Morgan Keegan on July 11, 2011 by a vote of 5-2.

Charlie McKenzie, Dale Hughes, Vice Mayor Avery Johnson and Estes voted in favor of an overall big picture policy to bid out bond issues. Councilman David May wanted to wait until the budget meeting in March to discuss the matter. May and At-Large Councilmen George Poe and Richard Banks voted against the motion.

“I feel the City Council needs more time to study the intent of the motion and it should be discussed at the budget retreat on March 12,” the mayor said in a short statement.

Estes, who proposed the motion, prefaced it by saying buying debt is the city’s most expensive purchase.

“Not to bid out our most expensive purchase is to be hypocritical. Whether we vote on it today, whether we vote on it in two weeks or whether we wait until the budget — Janice, do you have anything unique or in the back of your mind to present in March (at the budget workshop)?”

Casteel said the next issuance would be for the Spring Branch Industrial Park. The city, Bradley County and Cleveland Utilities are equally sharing the $6 million cost. She said the utility will issue debt, but the Council previously agreed to cover Bradley County’s $2 million share until 2016. The next debt beyond that would most likely be $2 million for the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home.

But, throughout the financial policy disagreements, council members saw to it that South Cleveland Community Center got a new swimming pool and splash park that opened July 20.

The new pool features a water slide, aquatic climbing wall and splash park at the city’s newest park located at 1334 Church St. S.E. The Council unanimously approved $676,500 for the new 25-meter pool and splash park in February as a replacement for a 42-year-old pool troubled by maintenance problems which did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tri-Con Construction of Cleveland built the pool and splash park for $549,500 and $147,000 respectively. After a $20,000 deduction for being selected to build both projects, the total cost was reduced to $676,500. Community Development Block Grants paid $109,000. The remaining $566,500 was paid by the city from increased sales tax receipts.

It was not a unanimous vote earlier in the year for Waterville Golf Course. A faithful member of the Waterville Golf Course scored the debating equivalent of a hole-in-one Feb. 27 and put to rest any further discussion on the municipal course.

“It makes no sense for us to come this far and not finish this project,” Carl Hobbs said to the Council about the municipal golf course. “I don’t want to be crude here, but you didn’t take too long to vote to finish the bathroom and now you are struggling with whether you want to finish the project or not. It does us no good to have a place to pee if we don’t have a place to play.”

Hobbs’ statement came after he listened patiently as Council members voted to approve a $45,850 contract with Ross Construction to build restroom facilities for golfers on the city-owned course.

He sat in the Council chamber 30 minutes more after At-Large Councilman Richard Banks questioned the need for spending $83,800 to buy and lay 64,000 square feet of sod on the course before interjecting his advice that ended discussion. Council members approved the expenditure by a 5-2 vote.

Much of the work renovating the golf course was done by the Public Works Department to stretch the $1.42 million the Tennessee Department of Transportation paid the city for right of way needed to widen Dalton Pike.

The cost of the sod came from the city’s General Fund. City Manager Janice Casteel said sod was chosen over seeding the course in order for it to open by June and restore the course to 18 holes.

Council members officially adopted the 2012 Tax Rate and approved the first reading of the FY2013 budget by unanimous votes in May. The property tax remains at $1.49 per $100 of assessed value. The tax rate continues to be the lowest among all cities in Tennessee with a K-12 school system.

City Manager Janice Casteel said the property tax rate in 2002 was $1.56. The closest rate to Cleveland is the $1.78 charged by the city of Elizabethton.

The FY2013 budget contained a 2 percent cost of living raise for city employees. Cleveland City Schools’ employees received a 3 percent raise and Cleveland Utilities personnel got a 4.5 percent increase (2 percent is cost of living and 2.5 percent is merit for eligible employees).

“There is no increase in the property tax rate or sanitation fee,” she said.

City staff estimated revenues of the municipality from all sources including current and delinquent taxes, nontax revenues and proceeds from the sale of debt to be $222.481 million. That amount also includes Cleveland Utilities and the school system budgets. The city’s General Fund budget is the city’s operating fund. The city’s proposed FY2013 operating budget of $36,242,000 is $647,174 less than the actual FY2010-11 budget of $36,889,174.

Casteel said during a discussion of the budget and appeal of the sales tax ruling that municipal departments are struggling to continue providing services and the police department loses six grant positions in the FY2013 budget.

“We need to be concerned about continuing the services our citizens expect and deserve. Our workforce is down about 25 positions according to our personnel list. I can’t cut more people and deliver the current level of service,” she said. “I understand that many of you don’t want to raise city property taxes.”

The city manager said she could not make up for the $1.8 million loss of funds after the fire contract with Bradley County fully expires June 30, 2013.

“We made it through FY2013 through cuts and increased sales tax collections,” Casteel said. “I will need a property tax increase as we move forward if we’re not successful in this appeal.”

The appeal was not successful.

The Historic Cleveland Neighborhood Association expressed opposition in March to moving City Hall from downtown to Raider Drive. The letter acknowledged the generosity displayed by Forrest Preston in donating the former First Tennessee Bank building at 775 Raider Drive to the city, but the organization opposes relocating City Hall or any city offices or functions from downtown.

The donation of the four-story bank building was announced Oct. 23, 2011. On Nov. 2, 2011, the Council accepted the gift of the First Tennessee Bank building at 775 Raider Drive on the condition there were no restrictions. Since then, supporters of the central business district have expressed concern the city would move its offices away from downtown, potentially.

The HCNA did express support for Cleveland City Schools using the building. School administrators have expressed interest in the building for use as its administrative offices, the STAR center currently located on leased property on North Lee Highway, the Bradley/Cleveland Education Foundation and possibly the teachers’ credit union. The building has 48,000 square feet of space and more than 8 acres of property.

While the Council accepted the gift without restrictions, Preston retains ownership.

The city did make a virtual move — to another website — after city staff recommended a Kansas company to design a new site for the city. Council members unanimously approved the choice in April.

Civic Plus, of Manhattan, Kan., was awarded the contract at a cost of $34,738 for design, first-year maintenance support and hosting fee. The price also includes a redesign every five years to keep the website fresh.

Civic Plus will also train city personnel to post current information on the Internet and it maintains data both on-site and off-site with the ability to set up text groups for alerts. A second proposal made by Sturgis Web Services, Fort Mill, S.C., at a cost of $10,200, was rejected because that company’s proposal included only the tax collection information portion of the required service.

Also in April, City Finance Director Mike Keith resigned his post with the city of Cleveland, effective May 31, two days after the second reading of the fiscal year 2013 budget. Keith assumed the duties as finance director/city clerk on Feb. 6, 2007, to replace Casteel, who was appointed assistant city manager on Jan. 1, 2007, by former City Manager Joe Cate.

Much of the Sept. 10 Council meeting was reserved for swearing in four returning Council members who began new four-year terms.

Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland administered the oath of office to Vice Mayor Avery Johnson, District 4 Councilman David May, District 5 Councilman Dale Hughes and At-Large Councilman George Poe.

Johnson said he was fortunate to be one of the longest-serving councilmen vested with the responsibility of guiding Cleveland.

“I promise I will continue to do the very best job I can,” he said.

May expressed his love for the city of Cleveland and the 4th District, adding, “and I consider it an honor to serve and look forward to working with my colleagues. I feel like we’ve got some tough times ahead of us, but I feel like working together, we can make the decisions we have to for the betterment of Cleveland.”

Hughes was elected to his first full term after he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Bill Robertson in April 2011.

“I appreciate the confidence of the Council and the opportunity to serve,” Hughes said. “I look on both my left and my right and I can say without reservation that each of these gentlemen love this city. I know their heart at this time and I know the time they spend on various different projects.”

Hughes also thanked city staff for their hard work and dedication.

Poe said running for re-election presents a problem because the public knows what he will do.

“You can’t lie to the people and tell the people what you are going to do, because you’ve already done it,” Poe said. “If you get re-elected it’s even a bigger honor because you’re going to do the same thing you’ve been doing.”