|As Fort Thomas council looks at traffic and parking across the city, input from businesses in the Midway District could lead to parking improvements.|
By Robin Gee, city council beat editor
In light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on city residents, the Fort Thomas City Council Finance Committee recommended freezing the tax rate at the current rate and not increasing the rate for the coming year.
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In every year allowable since 1979, the city had approved the new compensating tax rate recommended by the state plus the allowed maximum additional four percent to balance the budget, keep the city running and fund new and ongoing projects.
The city will still need to hold a public hearing on setting the tax rate before voting. A public hearing is planned for September 8 prior to a council meeting.
A commitment to hold the rate
At a June council meeting to pass the '20-'21 Fiscal Year budget, Council Member Mark Collier had voted "no" over concerns that the budget relied on the compensating rate plus four at a time of such uncertainty when residents were being impacted by the virus pandemic.
At the time of that budget meeting, city officials did not know how the COVID pandemic would affect city revenues, especially payroll taxes, business and occupational licensing revenues. While they had applied for CARES Act relief funds, none had come in at that point.
Those fears were taken into consideration when the budget was developed, said Mayor Eric Haas.
Council Member David Cameron, a member of the Finance Committee, said the committee wanted to find a way to not increase taxes at this vulnerable time. "Here’s where we [council] had decided 'comp plus four' but the committee decided no, because of the COVID situation, we would actually freeze the tax rate from last year. It’s not unprecedented but pretty rare in our history."
City Finance Director Joe Ewald explained how events unfolded that allowed for the change in plans. "Not only are we slated to receive some CARES funds, probably more importantly...we projected a large hit on the revenue side... and the initial returns on that are looking far better than we had anticipated."
Ewald added that, while it's an atypical year, holding down the tax rate even though the budget was built on it, won’t hurt the city’s plans much because revenues should come in far higher than projected.
The mayor and council members praised the Finance Committee and officials on staff, Ewald and City Administrator Ron Dill, for the work they did to adjust and allow for the freeze without causing a lot of pain and disruption in city budget plans.
Council Member Jeff Bezold, a member of the Finance Committee, said, "It was such a priority to make sure this council and the staff were taking care of Fort Thomas residents during this time."
In addition to Bezold and Cameron, Council Member Roger Peterman, serves as chair of the council Finance Committee.
Public safety takes center stage
Council heard a report from Adam Blau, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee. The committee is beginning a deep dive into issues of traffic safety, parking and related concerns, taking a look at the situation across the city as a whole.
Blau said he was excited to start the process. "We started off talking about speed limits, something I hear about all the time, and safety in our city. Through that we also talked about the parking situation in the Midway District."
The committee looked into time limits for parking spaces and potential for handicapped parking and parking designed for quick turnaround, such as carry out pick up. Blau noted that the business district has blossomed over the past eight years and space needs and other considerations may have changed. from initial concepts. For example, he noted, a bus stop in the district no longer in service could be converted to carryout parking.
Blau said the committee plans to do more research, including visiting with most of the businesses in Midway to find out about their needs and concerns.
Moving onto speed limits, Blau said the committee discussion was intense and lively. He said he discovered that the city’s existing policy on how speed limits are set was written initially 20 years ago and updated 10 years ago.
Dill explained how speed limits are determined based on that policy. The policy recognizes a traffic engineering standard known as the 85th percentile. He listed out the many ways data is gathered by traffic safety officers and then how it is analyzed by city engineers to determine a safe speed limit.
The 85th percentile rule is the speed at or below which 85 percent of all vehicles are observed to travel under free-flowing conditions past a monitored point. Traffic engineers use this data as a guide to set the speed limit at a safe speed, minimizing crashes and promoting uniform traffic flow along a corridor.
Council Member Ken Bowman, a member of the Public Safety Committee along with Peterman and Blau, noted that the 85th percentile rule was developed in the 1960s in the era of the new super highways and the desire to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. He said some cities have abandoned the rule for other methods, and he hopes the committee will explore what others are doing.
Blau said the committee has engaged city engineering consultants, CT Consultants to create a survey for the community, and once the information is gathered, to then develop a report for the committee and council. He asked, since traffic safety and speed limits are such a big issue and of such great importance across the city, council as a whole should review the CT report and discuss ideas and options.
The mayor said the committee meeting could be opened up to council members who would like to attend or the report could be shared with all of council by calling a Committee of the Whole.
Good news for city building renovations
Ewald shared some good financial news that will help with the funding of much needed renovations for the city building. In the budget with expectations of a shortfall, city officials identified only the most important capital projects, including the renovations, and determined about $5.5 million would be needed.
Due to the low very low interest rates in effect, he said the city will be able to take advantage of the situation and raise the badly needed funds through a combination of refinancing and borrowing new money without having an adverse impact on the budget.
Haas noted the building is 50 years old and many things have been put off in favor of other city needs. "The timing for this has been great," he said.
Peterman said the energy improvements planned for the renovation will also help cut operating costs. He said building redesign plans also include a much more user-friendly layout. More information will be shared soon as the project proceeds.
The Finance Committee also prepared bids for other city improvements including back stop fencing for the ball field in Tower park, a new backhoe for the city services department, and leveling and resurfacing of the basketball courts.
City council also passed three ordinances at the meeting.
- An ordinance outlining rules and regulations for golf carts in the city. The ordinance was amended to reflect a state decision to allow people to drive the carts at night.
- An employee pay and benefits ordinance for police personnel; city staff members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and non-union employees.
- A personnel classification plan with a pay table and amended ranges for certain positions.
Council also heard a first reading of an employee pay ordinance for fire service personnel.