Mayor Becky Stinchcomb said Gahanna made some progress toward achieving goals in 2013, but the city faces the increasing challenge of providing outstanding local government services at a sustainable level.
She cited rising costs, higher expectations and fewer available financial resources. That, she said, is the central challenge for 2014 and beyond.
During the annual State of the City address March 13, Stinchcomb pointed to an income-tax initiative that failed at the polls twice last year. The proposal was an effort to bridge an $8 million gap between ongoing revenue sources and what it would have cost to fund ongoing operations and capital infrastructure improvements.
"Last June, we presented our 2014 tax budget and five-year forecast to City Council," she said. "We identified a number of noncore services and improvement projects that would not occur in 2013 and 2014 if sufficient revenues were not realized."
Reductions were outlined in order for Gahanna to remain sustainable in 2015 and beyond. Some of the cuts involved closing the swimming pools and the senior center, reducing parks and athletics field maintenance, cutting longstanding community events and some parks and recreation programming, and city staff reductions.
"Since November, my administration and I, along with City Council, community leaders and citizens alike, have had some time to reflect on and assess our current financial situation and to consider alternatives and new solutions," Stinchcomb said. "Now that we have a decision from voters on the level of investment our taxpayers are willing to make in our city, we are hard at work."
A plan for the city's long-term financial sustainability is being defined to identify programs and services Gahanna will be able to provide in the near future.
"Last week, (the Gahanna) Parks and Recreation (Department) released our Spring/Summer Gateway Program Guide, which reflected reductions to some of our program offerings," Stinchcomb said.
Changes include the elimination of many longstanding community events, such as Music in the Park, 2nd Saturdays, Fireside Fridays, Backyard Campouts, Create & Play, Party in the Park and our Grandparent Series.
Thanks to community partner Gahanna Parks & Recreation Foundation, Stinchcomb said, the Creekside Live Series will continue this summer.
"We have received a number of inquiries from citizens regarding the future of our swimming pools and the senior center," she said. "Tonight I want to reaffirm that all our pools will be open this summer, barring any catastrophic failure of our 50-year-old pool facility. Our parks and recreation staff is gearing up already this year to serve the 5,000 citizens that purchase pool memberships each year."
Stinchcomb said the current operational forecast, however, wouldn't support the city operating pools in 2015.
"We have begun formal conversations with potential private partners about operating the pools in the future," she said. "Barring any additional revenues dedicated to recreation, the city is not currently planning to operate the pools as public facilities beginning next year. We do hope we can find a private operator to keep them open and invest in our aquatic facilities for future use."
She said the senior center would remain open this year and would continue to offer existing programs.
"We have expanded its usage and will now offer active adult programming to all adults in Gahanna," Stinchcomb said. "Additionally, the center is now available to the community as a rental space. This change is preferable to simply closing the building, as we first feared. We know change is often difficult, and many seniors are concerned about no longer having the exclusive use of this building."
Without additional revenue or possible corporate sponsorship, she said, this is the best plan moving forward to retain as much senior programming as possible for the senior citizen community.
In parks and recreation particularly and for many city efforts, Stinchcomb said, the new model will be one in which government no longer might provide as many programs or services but would continue to provide the opportunity for others to do so.
"As an example of this model, in past years the city has provided summer day camp for our youth at two facilities, Hannah Park as well as Friendship Park," she said. "This year, the city will only operate day camp at Hannah Park, which will create many opportunities for savings. However, Friendship Park will still be fully utilized this summer. Our longtime private partner, Jump Start Sports, will operate a half-day sports and a full-day traditional day camp at Friendship Park."
Since January, Stinchcomb said, the administration and City Council have been working diligently to address challenges and explore strategies to help Gahanna move forward.
"We have prepared a newly revised five-year financial outlook, based on current data, which includes revised expenditures and revised funding strategies," she said. "City Council is working hard with the administration to revise the city's financial reserves policy, to more accurately reflect our exposure to risk, both from natural disasters as well as from future economic downturns."
Council and the administration also are working through a comprehensive process to create a plan for long-term financial sustainability, she said.
"We expect that this process will yield many outputs by the end of this year, most notably the 2015 budget," Stinchcomb said. "We will review and prioritize capital needs and explore possible alternatives for funding them."
She said the city would be transparent in communicating information.
"As this process moves forward, we plan to dedicate a page on our website to provide updates and information on next steps so that you remain engaged during this important process," Stinchcomb said. "As we envision the future for our city, let us continue to ask ourselves: 'What kind of city do we want Gahanna to be?' "
Stinchcomb said the city needs more citizen input, advice and ideas so that the plan going forward is one that the majority could get behind and actively support.
"I believe that we will need to find new sources of revenue if we are to fulfill our citizens' expectations of our local government," she said. "Or we as a community will need to limit our expectations to fit our current level of funding."
Stinchcomb said Gahanna would need community partners to step up to ensure that many of the events and programs residents have come to expect will remain in the city.
For Stinchcomb's complete State of the City address, go online to gahanna.gov.