Galion Council discusses finances and electric rates
Highlights from Galion City Council’s Aug. 14 meeting were presented in the Aug. 15 issue of the Inquirer. However, there were numerous pieces of legislation discussed and the Finance committee report shed light on an interesting issue for Galion residents. The recurring topic throughout the meeting was electric power generation.
First, in legislation Ord. 2012–59 increased appropriations to the infrastructure account by $6,000 using money received from the state via the Community Development Block Grant. The next ordinance (2012–60) transferred $10,000 from the general fund to the fire demolition account.
City Manager Gene Toy explained the legislation is the result of a 2011 house fire on West Atwood Street. The house has since been renovated and the city is returning damage deposit monies to the homeowners.
Finance Director Karen Walters explained the transfers will ensure that the city has enough appropriations in those accounts through the remainder of the year. Debts also need to be paid using the urban paving account, which is why such a large transfer was needed.
Under Ord. 2012–63, the city entered into an agreement with the Mansfield/Ontario/Richland County Health Department. Employees of that department will inspect facilities in Galion with commercial plumbing or medical gas from now on.
Chief Building Inspector Matt Ross explained that special certification is needed to conduct such inspections. In the past, the state has been in charge of it, but this year Crawford County contracted with the Richland Co. Health Department; Galion is simply keeping things consistent with the jurisdiction in the rest of the county.
As mentioned in Wednesday’s edition, Ord. 2012–64 dropped the 4 percent adder rate on electric bills. What it means for customers is that the average electric bill of $84 with the adder could now be about $81.
Toy and Mark Triplett, electric department supervisor, worked with Belinda Miller, a financial supervisor from the state auditor’s office, in past months to analyze city finances and revenue for the electric department in order to determine when the adder rate could be removed. In order to make up for the loss of revenue from the adder rate, cuts were made to the utility fund budget.
Toy explained that more money than necessary was allocated to several funds and annual projects. Such allocations were simply reduced so that more money could remain in the general fund. For example, if $300,000 was appropriated for a certain project each year but only $50,000 was consistently spent on it in the past, the appropriation was reduced to $100,000—which is still double the amount typically needed.
All of those ordinances passed as emergencies.
Ord. 2011–80 was legislation pertaining to an alley vacation extending from Atwood Street between inlots 416 and 417. This was the same alley discussed during the public hearing at the beginning of the meeting.
The residents on each side of the alley want it vacated due to a lack of on-street parking in front of their homes. The alley is 16.5 feet wide; those residents would each own half of it. They must use the alley for access to their garages and have agreed that, if vacated, they will share it as a driveway.
Council member Dr. Tom Fellner was not sure if the vacation would be good for the long term. “What happens when the properties change hands?” he asked.
Council has dealt with that possibility in the past after it approved an alley vacation. When one of the properties got a new owner, there was a conflict with sharing the alley. Because the owner legally owned half of it, there was nothing that the other resident could do. Because of this, Council was hesitant on Tuesday to pursue the new vacation.
There was also some confusion over the legislation being labeled as a second reading because council members could not remember when the first reading occurred and the first public hearing about it had been held on the same evening. Fellner moved to change the legislation to a first reading, which passed 5–2 with Fellner and Council President Gail Baldinger dissenting.
It was the real second reading for Ord. 2012–54, which adopted standards for customers with renewable electric generation facilities of 25 kW or less. Under the legislation, the city would credit anyone putting power back into the system through renewable energy sources, resulting in lower electric bills.
Council member Roberta Wade expressed concern with crediting people who use renewable energy generation. She insisted that because the city is paying for peak demand of electric generation through its contract with Amp Ohio, it should not encourage citizens to use less power.
She called the contract a long-term investment that the city is stuck with no matter what. If more and more citizens install renewable sources of power like solar panels or wind turbines, she said that it could affect how much electricity the city generates. Wade thought the possibility of the city paying for more electricity than it was generating could be a major issue in the future.
However, currently only one resident is using a solar panel. Several members of Council found it unlikely that there would be a large influx of other residents using renewable energy due to the high start up cost.
Triplett estimated that it takes $30,000 to install one solar panel. Although savings would be reflected in electric bills, it would take years to make that money back. Baldinger added that when the Amp contract expires, Council could then review the city’s power needs.
In committee reports, Walters announced that some customers did not get electric bills for the month of July due to a glitch in the system. So far, at least ten people have been affected that she is aware of. She said to contact the finance department at 419–468-1823 if you are not receiving bills on time.
Wade, who serves as Finance committee chair, then directed the conversation toward Prairie State, one of the electricity providers that the city has contracted with. A lengthy discussion followed.
Currently Galion is paying $100,000 per month in interest payments for the construction of the coal-fired power plant but has not received any power from it, which has been online for several months. Wade was concerned about the costs that the city is liable for, especially in light of recent legal action being taken against the company.
Belinda Miller attended the meeting. She argued that Galion is paying for a relatively small portion of the project. “[Galion’s] liability for sharing the cost is insignificant compared to some other smaller communities than you that bought into bigger proportions.”
Wade asked if any type of risk analysis had been conducted before getting into the contract. Miller responded that Sawvel performed the study about the city’s electricity needs and provided recommendations that Council based its decision on when it approved the contract earlier this year.
At the end of the discussion, Wade said she would still like to set up a public meeting about Prairie State to better understand the project. “I want to understand why Sawvel thought it was a good idea for the city of Galion to buy 40 percent of what the city of Cleveland bought…When something feels risky, you don’t buy a lot of it,” Wade explained.
Baldinger argued that he has not seen any documentation that the project is risky. Also, he said that the Finance committee should have been involved during the original discussions of Prairie State before the contract was approved and claimed that Wade did not make an effort to get the committee involved.
George added that when the Sawvel consultants held a meeting, they addressed all of the issues that Wade brought up that evening. She said that if Wade had not left that meeting early, she would know that the consultants went into great detail explaining everything about the aspects of the agreement.
The Finance committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 28 at 6 p.m. (before the next Council meeting) in the township room. It will discuss more about Prairie State and review related energy contracts.
In other business, George read a statement about the Charter amendment, which will appear on the ballot in this year’s election. She said it was falsely labeled as an ‘amendment.’ “The intention of Mrs. Wade and her group is to abolish our city Charter,” George stated.
She praised the work of the volunteers who originally drafted the Charter in 1985 as well as the 2009 Charter review committee and asked those who support the abolishment to think about what they are destroying.
Also, Baldinger asked Council member Paul Flannery if he brought any evidence to the meeting to prove statements he made at the previous Council meeting. Flannery had commented that the city has gone “backward” since the Charter went into affect more than 25 years ago and has been operating at a loss. (After those statements Baldinger requested that he bring supporting evidence to the next meeting.)
Flannery, who appeared confused by the question, responded that he did not have any materials with him. “I’ll bring that in and you bring one in saying we’ve advanced,” he said.
Baldinger pressed him to present what he had to the Finance committee so that members could review it and then present something to Council. He asked Flannery multiple times when he could deliver the evidence. “If it was important enough for you to bring it up, it’s important enough for the Finance committee to review it.”
In his city manager comments, Toy announced some upcoming events like Hotdogs on the Square on Aug. 17 and today’s Cash Mob, which begins at noon. Also, the Ohio Department of Transportation has a survey on its website (www.access.ohio.gov). Toy encouraged the public to take the survey and share their opinions on how ODOT is doing and upcoming transportation projects.
Lastly, Toy read his statement announcing that the street fund deficit would soon be eliminated, a significant step in getting the city out of fiscal emergency.
Only two citizens addressed Council Tuesday. First, Roger Stall asked Council to do something about a vacant dwelling that has become a public safety hazard.
Baldinger explained that, after Stall made him aware of the dwelling at the last meeting, he talked to Toy, who then asked Ross to look into it. Ross said that he has talked to the county treasurer about the property and requested that the county foreclose it. What to do about the property is still being considered.
Chris Stone addressed Council at the request of Joe Kleinknecht from the Galion Area Chamber of Commerce. Kleinknecht could not attend the meeting due to a recent surgery.
Stone stated, “On behalf of the members of the Galion Area Chamber of Commerce, I would like to personally commend Mr. Gene Toy and his team for the work that they’ve completed over the last several months regarding the electricity rates.”
He said Toy’s diligence and persistence resulted in the removal of the adder rates, and he therefore did the right thing for the community. Stone hoped that citizens would take the time to thank Toy as well.
Several members of the audience could be heard scoffing throughout his comments. Some also made dissenting remarks under their breath contradicting Stone’s statements about Toy.