Mayor Mercer gives state of the city address

| January 27, 2015

COSHOCTON –  Mr. President, members of council, fellow elected officials, co-workers, guests and citizens.

Charles Dickens was a prolific writer of some of the most well known fictional characters of all time and one of his most acclaimed novels was “Great Expectations”. It was the story of the struggles of a young orphan, who later in life was funded by an anonymous benefactor to learn the ways of a “Gentleman”.  In his life of highs and lows, this young man had all the promise of “Great Expectations”.

When I consider the current State of the City, everyone can see the highs and lows we experience. When I took office in 2008, the great recession was just starting and municipalities have lived in that low ever since. I’ve often speculated what it would be like to be a mayor on the other side of the ledger.  Even with having to manage through this down cycle, with the joint effort of many dedicated people, the city has still pressed forward, and now heading into this year, we have many reasons to see a future of Great Expectations!

Let’s start with the look back to 2014 to see how it sets up for 2015.

In the beginning of last year, we forecast that 2014 was going to be a pivotal and difficult year financially and unfortunately, it played out that way. There was both good news and bad news. The good news is our main source of revenue, the Income Tax, was up again over $120,000., or 2.86%. The previous year, it was up 2.06%. That shows a positive trend I anticipate continuing this year.

Another positive statistic is the County’s unemployment rate has slowly declined  from a high of over 13% 6 years ago, to its current rate of 5.3%, and, we are now one of only 17 counties in the State that have been designated as an LPA, Labor Surplus Area. We have jobs out there to fill!

However, the loss of revenue from various sources has negated the income tax gain amounting to a total reduction of $218,545.00 to our General Fund. Even with everyone working earnestly to reduce spending to bare bones, our General Fund finished in the red for the first time in five years. Having to reduce services and put off essential purchases only kicked the can down the road. The Auditor’s office bore the weight of vigilant monitoring to keep the bills paid. For that, I want to thank them, our department heads, Council and our employees who had to endure nearly a year long drone of fiscal woes from Sherry and myself.

The result of that revenue loss led to critical cash funding issues for our contract with the Sheriff’s Office. Only through reducing appropriations in other departments and numerous meetings with cooperative county officials, were we able to avoid layoffs in the Sheriff’s office. This year, we have budgeted even less in our General Fund departments and in the Sheriff contract. That has led Council to place before you the tax payers, a 1/2% income tax increase on the May ballot for safety services. We all understand the burden it can create on a family, but spreading the expense of police protection in this way keeps the costs at the lowest possible amount. This is a most significant time in the city and across the state, as we see illegal drug use exploding and the crimes to support these habits increasing. I have always considered Coshocton a safe community to walk the streets and I still believe we are, but we cannot afford staff reductions and to go backwards at this crucial time. I ask for your support this May for our safety services so we can strengthen how we provide community safety and maintain the amount of deputies on our streets.

However, these financial issues did not stop us from moving forward.

Our Utility and Public Works departments banded together like no other time in city history to resolve a mine water and storm drain issue effecting residents on Adams Street for over 25 years. This major problem had been perplexing and frustrating to not only the residents, but to us as well. Our employees took on this task and accepted the challenge of performing this work that previously had been well outside the scope of what we have done ourselves. This not only saved the city tens of thousands of dollars in outside contractor costs, it elevated the skills and pride of our workers.

Armed with that new sense of empowerment, when part of Evergreen Drive started caving in, Public Works took the challenge of repairing and replacing the road themselves with 47 yards of concrete, new curbing, and paving. This same small department also shoveled over 800 tons of asphalt, tackling the worst pothole mess we have ever faced.

The high mark of this city service was the passing of the 5 year street levy that will raise about $400,000. a year. That will allow us to repave many streets and plan for the maintenance of our roads city-wide.

In conjunction with better streets, we passed an ordinance creating a new Tree Commission that will oversee planting and maintenance in the public right of way areas. This new concept for Coshocton is a progressive change to assure the beauty of our community for generations to come.

The City Partnered with the Port Authority and Senator Brown’s office to create a week long manufacturing camp called “How’s that Made?” This was geared for Junior High Students to learn and observe first-hand how products are made here in the county. With a goal to appeal to a new generation for trained workers, we anticipate this hugely successful program continuing for years. I want to thank the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs for their financial support to make this happen.

Another significant step forward was the completion of a downtown revitalization plan initiated by the Port Authority and Our Town Coshocton. This plan formulated by The Poggemeyer Design Group, is now in the implementation and priority stage. Rejuvenating our downtown is an essential part of helping restore Coshocton from the effects of the financial downturn that started over 15 years ago.

Our Town Coshocton, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and various other entities contributed to many new and existing events that brought a fresh attention to the great community we live in.

Events such as the first Ice Carving Festival, over 2000 cyclists returned for GOBA, the UKC National Hunting Dog Competition, the Indian Mud Run, Councilman Fuller organizing the first ever Appalachian Bacon Nation and of course Ohio’s longest running continuous Balloon Festival.

Bacon, you ask?

Perhaps last year’s most significant announcement was the local Kraft Foods facility was selected for a $40,000,000 plant expansion that will add 300 new jobs and $8 million in payroll dollars per year over the next 10 years. This kind of investment in Coshocton was done with careful scrutiny of our city and the company’s ability to earn a profit by being here. This is a shining example of how different entities come together to benefit the good of all. I sincerely want to express my appreciation to the efforts of our City Officials, the Port Authority, County Commissioners, Governor’s Office of Appalachia and the State Development Agency. They all helped breathe the fresh hope of great expectations back into our local economy.

This expansion aids in the reversal of a 15 year downturn and builds on the other major expansions at the Clow Water Corporation and Organic Technologies.  These investments help solidify the Industrial base we’ve enjoyed for over 125 years and help establish our area as the “Made in USA City”.

As State Senator Jay Hottinger said recently, we need Dream Makers, not Dream Breakers. There will always be skeptics that have no vision, or think that returning to the past is a better choice, but I choose to see these investments as the elements that build Coshocton Dreams. Dreams that give our citizens great jobs and an outstanding quality of life.

Besides the improved job market, what now can you expect in 2015?

With the passing of the street levy and leveraging our matching funds with the state, Coshocton is going to look like a year-long construction zone.

The largest paving undertaking is going to be a 2.5 million project to redo State Route 541 from one end of town to the other. From the west end of Chestnut to Third Street to Walnut to Cambridge to the east edge of the city. It will include catch basins, safety railings, handicap ramps and plenty of dirt, dust and inconvenience. But oh my, it will have a tremendous result on more of the city than even our other previous projects on Second Street and then Chestnut.

And new asphalt will not end there, two more less costly projects, but of equal significance will be done.

Perhaps the more welcomed project will be a rebuilding of Otsego Avenue. Last winter tore it up and parts of it just fell apart. A major thoroughfare on that end of town, the tons of asphalt we applied to make it passable has mainly served as aggravating speed bumps. That project cannot come fast enough.

The other project to maneuver around will be resurfacing of Main Street from Zero to 7th. The last time this was done was during the last downtown revitalization in the mid 1980’s. I’m expecting this project to be the first fruits of more improvements to come in helping rebuild the downtown area.

Finally, I dare bring up a subject we’ve had on the burner for more than 10 years, but I will.

We are in the last stage of finalizing the agreement with the County to accept the water and wastewater infrastructure outside the city limits. All the terms have been accepted and only the legal work of preparing documents, descriptions and deeds remain. Having the city own and operate the entire system will serve all the customers the best, both in services and costs. The consummation may not be close enough to hold your breath, but we all have our happy faces on, it’s around the corner.

As I close, I want to thank my immediate staff, Jerry Stenner and Cherry Wilson, all the department heads and supervisors, the elected officials, the many appointees on boards, committees and commissions, and all our employees that help make public service a rewarding profession. I want to thank my wife Sharon for her support and finally you the citizens for the confidence you’ve shown in hiring me to do this job.

Like Dickens’ character, we have trudged through the last 7 years being a financial orphan looking for the next meal that will take us through tough times, but we have great reason to have “Great Expectations” for this year.

We don’t need a wealthy benefactor, but we need to add partners and be a partner, because communities need each other. We are resilient people, we are survivors, we are as Dr. King envisioned, a Beloved Community and, we have on our side, the God of heaven and earth, who has set his purpose on blessing and causing us to prosper!

May God bless you and bless this city.

Mayor Steven D. Mercer

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Article contributed to The Beacon.

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