UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — Although it is uncertain what lies ahead, the city’s finances are looking a lot better these days after University Heights recently received an additional $461,000 in federal CARES Act money to help it deal with COVID-related expenses.
Gov. Mike DeWine, by signing into law House Bill 614 Oct. 1 allowed for the distribution of an additional $650 million to local governments across Ohio, bringing the total of money distributed to Ohio governments to $1.2 billion. The added $461,000 means that University Heights has now received just over $1.1 million in relief money.
“At first, we didn’t know if we’d get any (CARES Act) money,” said Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan. But, now that the city has been granted the money, Brennan, in his report at the start of Monday’s (Oct. 5) City Council meeting, told of how the aid has significantly closed the gap on what was once a projected $2-million deficit the city faced.
With the added funding, Brennan also plans to pay city employees money they had to forego by working four-day weeks over the course of 20 weeks, beginning in June. Brennan announced at the council meeting that the furloughs, that were to carry on until Oct. 31, were ending earlier than planned.
Initially, when faced with a possible $2-million shortfall, the administration and council worked to reduce the city’s spending by about $1 million. The reduction was made, among other things, by putting off this year’s road repair program, instituting the furloughs, and, due to the pandemic, not having to spend money on opening the city’s pools or in programming summer activities.
“While tax revenues remain down from this point last year,” Brennan reported to council, “for everything we have been through, we are down just 1 percent from this time last year. Rather than $2 million, we are down overall approximately $250,000 from original projections.
“The $1.06 million in budget cuts we made in June more than cover that, though many of those things are expenses that were deferred, like the roads program. The actions we took in June did not contemplate the receipt of CARES Act money. We hoped for such funds, we could not assume we would received them.”
Recent changes in U.S. Treasury guidelines for spending CARES Act money allow the city to use the funds to restore municipal operations, instead of having to spend the money on only COVID-related expenses.
“After consulting with the vice mayor (Michele Weiss), our finance director (Dennis Kennedy) and law director (Luke McConville), effective with the pay period ending Oct 3, the furlough and salary reductions are ended, and the full salaries and wages of the affected employees are restored,” Brennan announced. “Council members received an email this afternoon (Oct. 5) from the finance director: those of us elected officials who took a voluntary reduction need simply confirm to the finance director that you are waiving no further income from our positions.
“What does this mean for the public? For one thing, municipal operations will be restored on Friday afternoons, beginning this Friday (Oct. 9). While the buildings remain closed to the public due to COVID-19, we will be here working for you. But I assure you, though the windows might have been dark and the calls going to voicemail, I witnessed how hard everyone worked to get everything done in the time that was allowed.”
Brennan said city employees worked extra hard and, even though they had one less day per week since June to perform their tasks, nothing went undone. For that reason, and because the city received the CARES Act money, he said it was fair that the employees be paid for the days they went without pay. To do so will cost about $70,000.
“I have said on numerous occasions that the city’s greatest asset are the people who work for it,” Brennan said. “The people who serve this community. It is people who get things done. The residents of this city deserve our best, and the dedicated men and women who work for University Heights deliver it.
“I am proud of the people who work for this city. I am proud of how gracefully our employees have worked through these trying circumstances, how they have risen to the occasion. I have asked our law director to review how we may go about restoring the income lost by the affected employees during the furlough. Our employees stuck with us, in good faith. And in good faith, we should be able restore what they gave up.”
While things are now better than expected, Brennan said on Thursday (Oct. 8) that there are concerns heading forward.
“We didn’t pave the roads this year,” he said, “but they still need to be paved.” By not paving roads this year, the city put off spending $307,000. “And,” Brennan added, “there are more streets that will need paving next year.”
There are also projects such as posting new welcome signs at city borders, put off for this year, but possibly in the works for next year, that would cost money. The new signs are in keeping with the rebranding effort the city undertook in fall, 2018. Also, if pool and recreational activities are permitted in 2021, the city will face more costs it didn’t have to pay in 2020.
“Next year’s still very uncertain, and we have to be cautious with how we move forward,” Brennan said.
Brennan noted that just 10 percent of property tax collected from residents goes toward the city, and said that city operations are largely dependent on income tax money. It is not fully certain what the pandemic will ultimately do to the city’s income tax receipts. In discussing a loss of income tax money, Brennan said he did “not mean to minimize the fact that people are unemployed” and the impact that that has on their own lives as compared to city operations.
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