GATES MILLS — Six candidates running for four Village Council seats and the one candidate for treasurer gathered on Sept. 22 for a candidates forum, where they addressed hot topics like the potential deficit, preservation, development, transparency, communication, and their relationship with the Mayfield City School District.
Councilman Larry Frankel and Councilwoman Nancy Sogg are running for re-election. Councilman Craig Steinbrink, who was appointed earlier this year, is running to retain his seat. Newcomers David Atton, Laurie Deacon and Michael Press are challenging the incumbents. Treasurer Steve Siemborski is running unopposed to retain his seat. The terms for each council seat and the treasurer are four years. Journalist Mike McIntyre of Ideastream Public Media moderated the panel discussion, which was held at the Gates Mills Community House.
At the start of the program, Mr. Siemborski said that the village is in “good shape” financially. He said villagers may have heard that there was a deficit, but that was about two years ago and things have improved since then. There are expense controls in place, he said, and the village exceeded its revenue projections.
Mr. Atton, however, said that the village is facing at least a $600,000 deficit in the next 5-10 years. He described this as a “big red flag that needs to be paid attention.” Ms. Sogg said that council members have budgeted for a decrease in revenue and an increase in expenditures. The village has a “healthy” reserve, she said, and the revenues are currently covering expenditures. Although the village plans their finances in advance, Ms. Sogg said their forecasts are an “educated guess.”
“There is a projected, potential deficit,” Ms. Deacon said, adding that the village is currently in good financial shape. “There won’t be enough income to meet expenses. Revenue has been level and expenses are going up, so it is a projection.”
Mayfield City School District
Mr. Atton and Mr. Press both spoke on the taxes paid to the Mayfield City School District. Mr. Press said that Gates Mills taxpayers pay $11 million to the district for about 100 students who attend the Mayfield schools, which he said leaves the cost at $110,000 per student for Gates Mills taxpayers. According to the Mayfield treasurer’s office, the cost per pupil throughout the district is $16,201 for the 2019-2020 school year.
Mr. Press said that Gates Mills could set up their own school district for grades one through six then give the students vouchers to attend a different school, public or private, for grades 7-12. He credited this idea to Mr. Atton. Mr. Press also said if Gates Mills joined West Geauga Local Schools, taxes would be lower and that district is rated better than Mayfield.
Mr. Frankel, a member of the Mayfield Schools Liaison Committee, said that Mayfield is A-rated and described it as a “strong” district. The state funding formula for schools is in flux right now, he added. Mr. Steinbrink said that his children attended Gates Mills Elementary School, which is part of the Mayfield schools.
“Hunting Valley frankly [had] a lot of egg on their face and bad blood with the Orange school system,” Mr. Steinbrink said. “Could it have been handled differently? Absolutely.” He said Gates Mills needs to be careful of the paths they pursue and unintended consequences. Leaving the Mayfield school district is “not a realistic solution,” he said.
Preservation vs development
Ms. Sogg said that the village does not have a cluster home development ordinance. There is a code chapter for a conservation development, which requires 35 acres and a small number of homes, she said. When a developer or property owner asks about a conservation development, as chairwoman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Ms. Sogg said she will bring the proposal to a public forum for discussion.
“I don’t think development is necessarily bad,” she said. “I agree with everyone that said anything here about development. It has to be extremely considered by villagers. If we were going to change anything, that would come to villagers. It’s not something that we could do at council.”
Mr. Press said he will “die in the ditch” to protect green space.
“I think we’ve lost way too much green space in the village,” he said. “There’s some on council who would like to continue to develop green space in the interest of tax revenue. I personally think if we keep developing our green space, it isn’t going to be Gates Mills anymore. We’re going to be Beachwood or Mayfield Heights or somewhere like that.”
Mr. Steinbrink said any zoning change regarding development needs to go before the voters. He said he is not in favor of changing the zoning code from 5 acres per residence.
Transparency and communication
Much of Mr. Atton’s campaign has been focused on improving transparency and communication with the residents. He said when council could err on the side of secrecy or transparency, they err on the side of secrecy.
“I think they should always say, ‘How can we make this truly public?’” Mr. Atton said. “I think retreating to secrecy or executive session, whatever it is, even having meetings outside council, is just not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Mr. Frankel, a current councilman, said council is not secretive.
“It’s possible that it’s perceived that way but it’s definitely not intentional,” Mr. Frankel said, adding that council tries to be as transparent as possible.
The Zoom meetings have made the body more transparent, he said, because the meetings are recorded and available for online viewing. There is always an agenda item that allows for public comment at the end of the meeting, he said, but there are usually few or no audience members.
Mr. Steinbrink said communication to residents could be improved. There should be an information “push” rather than a “pull” where the residents are searching for information that is not disseminated to them, he said. Residents could join different email lists depending on what they are interested in, he said, and receive notifications about upcoming council meetings or pickleball tournaments.
Ms. Deacon said different people retain information in different ways, such as through reading text or seeing visuals like pictures. There is an opportunity for improvement in how council and other village organizations communicate with the residents, she said.
Early voting started on Tuesday and the election is on Nov. 2.