Solon City Council Finance Committee held a special meeting Monday to discuss details of the proposed 2019 budget, specifically grilling department heads on a new marketing venture and a request for a part-time administrator for the Human Resource Department.
Councilman Robert N. Pelunis had asked for more discussion regarding his questions on a $311,709 proposed expenditure for a new marketing venture. Director Angee Shaker gave committee members a detailed breakdown of her request during the Monday session.
The 2019 proposed budget for her department includes the $105,000 annual salary for her position as well as $26,208 for a part-time administrative position and $45,500 for employee fringe benefits totaling $176,709. The other expenditures portion of the requested budget totals $135,000 and includes funding for a market study, strategic development plan and advertising services to promote business development.
“We were told at the beginning by you when we hired and created this department that we would be hiring one person and not bring in another for at least a year,” Mr. Pelunis said to Mayor Edward H. Kraus.
Ms. Shaker began in the position this fall.
“With any department, I’m going to leave it up to the director to come in and evaluate the job,” Mayor Kraus said. “She is doing a role maybe made for five people.”
Mayor Kraus added that her job is to be out of the office, networking with businesses. “It creates some dilemmas,” Mayor Kraus said. “I wanted her to make that assessment and she has made it.”
Ms. Shaker said when she looked at the job description and went through the interview process, “there is no way one person can do all this.
“I was also told every department has at least an administrative assistant,” she added.
Councilman Douglas A. Magill said that Mr. Pelunis was correct in what the mayor had initially said.
“I wanted her to come in and delve into it before making a decision,” Mayor Kraus said. “It’s a major job and a major responsibility for me. This is my focus.
“It’s a lot,” he said of the new department, “and it’s going to grow.”
Mr. Magill said he doesn’t disagree that the mayor’s understanding has changed, and certainly Ms. Shaker is entitled to look at the position, “but what is your ramp-up period?” he asked Ms. Shaker. “When will you know the function of this job?”
Ms. Shaker said this is why she wants to put together an economic development strategic plan and do it collaboratively.
“It is a transparent process,” Ms. Shaker said, “and we will have experts at the table.” Those include site selectors, real estate brokers, developers “and key people who will help us with business attraction at the table.”
“Who are you thinking of using?” Mr. Pelunis asked.
“Do you want specific names?” Ms. Shaker said. Yes, Mr. Pelunis responded.
She said she does not know yet but will put out a request for proposals.
Mr. Pelunis also asked how she came up with the number of $50,000 for professional services associated with economic development strategic planning. She said it was based on information she obtained from other cities like Independence, Dublin and New Albany, near Columbus, as well as information from an Economic Development Association conference she attended in October.
“In reading strategic plans, it is very eye opening what gaps need to be filled (in Solon),” Ms. Shaker said.
Ms. Shaker described the deliverables that the economic development strategic plan will result in. “We will get an industry cluster analysis to determine the core industries that Solon should focus its business retention and attraction program on,” she said. Also, from plan a business retention and expansion strategy and attraction and marketing strategy will be obtained as well as site development strategies for infrastructure planing and financial opportunities. Lastly, it will provide an evaluation of and recommendation for Solon’s incentive programs and a strategic plan with action steps, timelines and metrics.
Ms. Shaker said a collaborative and transparent process that is going to garner not just buy in but enthusiasm around the city’s economic development plans needed.
“This is about creating a shared vision for economic development,” she added. “It is not about one person.”
“Through my interview process, I have said I am collaborative; I want to be transparent, and I want this to be a process,” Ms. Shaker continued.
Mr. Pelunis said she was using a lot of “key words” but “why can’t we do this in-house?”
Ms. Shaker asked Mr. Pelunis if he knows the economic development “branding” of Solon and he said no, that is not his position.
“It’s something no one in this city can articulate and that’s a problem,” she said. “We need to raise awareness to it.”
She has budgeted professional services associated with economic development branding at $12,000.
“I want expertise in the room,” Ms. Shaker said, “and to learn from our economic development partners” like Team NEO and Jobs Ohio.
“What do you think our brand is now?” Mr. Magill asked.
She said Solon is a premier city with high-quality education, a very strong industrial base and is home to many corporate headquarters. “Are the perceptions that Solon is a difficult city to work with a reality?” she asked. “Those are the perceptions but are they a reality?” Ms. Shaker said, adding that branding won’t happen overnight.
“We are not doing you any favors outsourcing that,” Mr. Magill said.
“The work is mine and the work is ours,” she said. “I’m not talking about outsourcing that.”
Councilman William I. Russo said anytime the city has done such things as the master plan, they have outsourced those who are doing the community survey associated with it for example.
Mr. Magill said he can see hiring someone to do business retention or social media plans as that would be the appropriate use of outside consultants, but from a practical standpoint, there is knowledge Ms. Shaker would gain. “I don’t think you should worry about the timing,” he said. “Let the mayor worry about that.
“Everyone wants her to succeed,” Mr. Magill added. “It’s just a question of focus.”
Mr. Pelunis also inquired about costs budgeted for legal services at $8,400 and $4,600 on customer relations software associated with business retention and expansion.
“We are a $65 million operation and that is peanuts,” Mayor Kraus said.
“You can say that but you are talking about taxpayer’s dollars,” Mr. Pelunis said.
“It’s a reasonable point but the wrong argument,” Mr. Magill added.
Councilman Jeremy Zelwin said the city is behind the times and being contradictory in some regards. “We want to do all this other stuff but don’t want to provide her with resources to do it,” he said. “It’s not like there isn’t return on the money we are spending.”
In an email following the meeting, Mr. Pelunis said to Ms. Shaker that he was disappointed with the answers to his questions “and would appreciate more detailed, factual responses, with corresponding back up information to the respective budget line items.
Mr. Pelunis requested from the Information Technology department a per day breakdown of the phone calls made to Ms. Shaker in the past two months as well as how many calls were made to former Economic Development Director Peggy Weil-Dorfman in the past year she was employed with Solon.
He also asked other questions such as how many business retention and expansion visits were scheduled for this year as well as what Economic Development Branding entails and where she plans to travel next year and what conferences she will attend.
“This isn’t about me; this is about the city and taking the right steps to fill empty buildings, create quality jobs, invest in our aging infrastructure and continue to broaden our tax base,” Ms. Shaker said.
Mr. Pelunis also questioned a request at $25,000 for a part-time assistant for Human Resource Director Nancy Stolarsky. It will be two years in April since that position will be filled and it has been an annual budget request. Mrs. Stolarsky sent Mr. Pelunis a complete job description.
He said there is some overlap with her job and the job description. He inquired whether a third party source could be used for Workers’ Compensation issues. Mrs. Stolarsky said the city does have a third-party administrator for that and that Workers’ Compensation is not the thrust of transactional issues. She said a lot of the work is highly manually intensive and her position needs to put its concentration on such areas as collective bargaining matters, for example.
“It doesn’t leave me a lot of time to do that,’ she said. “All the paperwork is coming through me.”
An assistant would have to handle more of the routine matters.
“It is truly not a good position to leave the city in” to have just one person filling all those roles, Mrs. Stolarsky said. Customer service is very important to her and all of the city’s employees are their customers, she said.
Mr. Zelwin said he supports Mrs. Stolarsky’s request and that a part-time employee could help with posting of jobs and other such tasks so Mrs. Stolarsky can focus on more strategic things.
“I’m doing all of these things and making it work,” she said, noting that the assistant had once been a full-time position, “but it is not the best model for the city.”
The spending plan will continue to be vetted by City Council with adoption expected later this month and the budget effective Jan. 1, 2019.