Westlake moves on from water decision, sets sights on city improvements

Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough points out the city’s low sewer rates during his State of the City presentation on March 8. Photo by Denny Wendell

When you have a sound plan and stick to it, you can expect things to turn out well. Such has been the case with Westlake. The city administration, under Mayor Dennis Clough, has a track record of making wise financial decisions, from offering business incentives to investing in infrastructure. A strong leader surrounded by a team of capable department heads and council members sharing a vision for the future have put the city on a path of growth.

In a long-awaited decision on the terms of Westlake’s contract with the Cleveland Division of Water, the Court of Common Pleas ruled last month in Westlake’s favor, finding that the city is entitled to obtain water from a secondary provider and is not liable for any costs to Cleveland Water, as the water service agreement expired in March 2015. While the City of Cleveland has vowed to appeal the decision, Mayor Clough expressed confidence in the verdict.

“Our attorneys indicate, and I tend to believe since I was the one who signed the original contract, that there’s really no basis for [an appeal],” Clough said in his State of the City address to the West Shore Chamber of Commerce on March 8. “The contract language is pretty clear, but we needed someone else to interpret it.”

The decision allows Westlake to have drinking water streaming in to the city from different directions – most likely Cleveland to the east and Avon Lake to the west.

Water isn’t the only thing flowing – money continues to pour into the city’s coffers, primarily from income and property tax collection. As income levels, property values and the number of residences increase, the city’s budget grows.

On the income tax side, Westlake took in more than $25 million last year, a historically high mark. One percent of the 1.5 percent tax goes to the general fund, while 3/8 percent of is earmarked for capital improvement projects. Though the general fund is for operating expenses, Westlake uses surplus funds from that account to address infrastructure needs when feasible.

“You never stop paying for capital needs in a community when you’re trying to address your infrastructure,” Clough said. “[But] our main purpose is to make sure we always have at least a three-month reserve based on our yearly expenditures. ... That’s one of the reasons we’re able to maintain a triple-A bond rating.”

The remaining 1/8 percent of income tax collection comes from a levy passed in 1996 to build and operate the recreation center. Clough stated that the city will ask voters in November to extend that levy for another 20 years for additional recreation development, including a transformation of Peterson Pool, and expand its scope to include construction of a new community center.

The proposed Westlake Family Aquatic Center will add 3,000 square feet of pool space – including a lazy river, lap pool, plunge pool and splash pad – and will nearly double the amount of grass and deck areas within the pool fence. Other goals identified through resident focus groups are to add walking trails and improve city parks.

Clough said that city is looking at potential locations for a new, larger community center to better serve a growing population. The community services department, which hosts many programs for older residents, also provides resources to those in financial need. “Even though people think we’re a very well-to-do community, we have individuals that need assistance on a regular basis, and our community services [department] makes sure that those residents, those individuals, get the necessary services from us.”

In other improvement news, work is progressing on the traffic signalization project. The city is replacing every traffic signal with “smart signals” allowing for traffic monitoring from the Westlake police station. System software will be able to adjust signal operations based on traffic patterns.

In his address, Clough put to rest a matter that has been pending for several years – the proposed Westshore fire district. Touted as another regionalization strategy allowing Westshore cities to pool resources, the conversation appears to be tabled for now. “The mayors feel pretty strongly about it but we haven’t been able to bring some community members in, some fire departments in,” Clough said. Unlike the central dispatch center, which has been a success, “it takes a lot more ‘buy in’ to get a fire district, from a lot more different groups, and we haven’t been able to get that.”

The city’s debt service, which spiked in the late ‘90s, has been decreasing for the past 15 years and is now just over $13 million, near the level it was 30 years ago when Clough took office. With the general fund now approaching $17 million, the city could technically pay off the debt balance.

“We are pretty much debt free,” Clough said, noting that the debt schedule does not include bonds issued for the American Greetings expansion, which AG and Crocker Park are obligated to repay.

Issuing those bonds to attract the greeting card company to Westlake’s “world-class town center” was another in a long series of sound financial decisions that have helped transform a quiet farming community into one of the premier suburbs in Greater Cleveland.

The State of the City address will be available for viewing on the city’s website and local access television stations. Residents are invited to attend a community event March 16, when Mayor Clough will present an abbreviated version of his address, and Superintendent Geoff Palmer will present a State of the Schools address with CFO/treasurer Mark Pepera. The event begins at 6 p.m. at the WHS Performing Arts Center.

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Volume 8, Issue 6, Posted 10:24 AM, 03.15.2016