Following a year of leadership changes and continued economic tumult, Pickerington's city manager sees fiscal management as the top priority for the city in 2009.

Following a year of leadership changes and continued economic tumult, Pickerington's city manager sees fiscal management as the top priority for the city in 2009.

In the first month of this year, Pickerington named Tim Hansley, city economic director since July 2006, as the interim replacement for outgoing city manager Judith Gilleland.

Two months later, Hansley was named to the job permanently, inheriting a downturn in residential and retail construction and a citywide hiring freeze brought on by sagging revenues.

In subsequent months, Pickerington weathered the same economic challenges faced by nearly every municipality in central Ohio and beyond.

Those tests appear to remain for 2009 and were compounded when residents on Nov. 4 voted nearly two to one against a levy to double the city income tax from 1 to 2 percent.

The situation has led Hansley, his staff and Pickerington City Council to consider slashing $1.4-million from the 2009 budget. Such a move could result in the elimination of $28,000 in spending to put on the city's July 4 celebration, cutting a $10,000 contribution to the annual Violet Festival and reducing payment for membership in the Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce from $10,000 to $5,000.

At least for now, however, no city jobs or services -- short of a change in roadway snow- and ice-removal strategy -- would be lost.

"The story of '09 probably will be how we're living with the cuts we've already made," Hansley said last Monday. "It's hard to make cuts people don't notice.

"With the cuts we're making, you're losing that kind of niche you have as a nice suburb. We'll see how people react to that, and how they live with that."

While it wouldn't affect the 2009 budget, city officials may ask voters again to raise taxes, but not before attempting to learn what went wrong in November.

Last week, city council's finance committee told Hansley to solicit bids from consultants that could shed light on why the income tax levy was defeated and help determine if a new or different levy might be more palatable. The survey is expected to cost $15,000 to $20,000, but the finance committee hopes it will ensure future levy success.

"They could look at structuring, such as whether people would be more supportive of a police levy than an income tax levy," Hansley said. "Once we get the results in, they may (establish) what issue we would have on the ballot.

"Ultimately, what you'd like to think is you can identify something that suggests (the last levy) was a miscommunication. My guess is it won't be that clear-cut, and we're going to have a range of feedback that council is going to have to wrestle with."

Although 2008 was difficult, Hansley said, it wasn't devoid of positive events that could springboard services and economic development in the coming year.

After nearly a decade of preliminary work, work started in February to widen Diley Road through Pickerington and Violet Township. The $13.1-million project will convert an essentially two-lane country road into a five-lane thoroughfare from state Route 256 to Busey Road, and will fit into an earlier widening project from the Canal Winchester border at Busey Road south to U.S. 33.

The Diley Road project is slated for completion by this summer.

"Probably the bright light at the end of the tunnel is Diley Road," Hansley said. "We've had some interest in vacant land at the south end of that. If we were in a normal economy, we probably already would be getting calls on that."

Last October also saw the groundbreaking for construction of a full-service, 24-hour emergency medical center near U.S. 33 and Diley Road. The $35-million joint venture between Mount Carmel Health System and Fairfield Medical Center could reap benefits for Pickerington as soon as next year, Hansley said.

"We think that will spin off some more specialty medical offices and retail developments in the city," he said.

Additionally, Hansley said the city's decision to take ownership of the Swim Club, a once-private aquatics complex, in 2008 was a prudent move which will continue to serve Pickerington and its residents.

"For the first time, the city operated a public swimming pool and we turned a profit," he said.

Hansley noted the approximately $150,000 in profits are being put back into the pool by way of repairs and upgrades. While the facility doesn't create revenue for the city, it provides needed recreation services for residents, he said, and doesn't cost the city because its operations are funded by user fees.

Hansley said city officials will focus in 2009 on learning how best to proceed with its business and services, as well as a possible future levy, to get through a tough economy. He hopes Pickerington residents will partner with the city so important programs and services can be maintained without further cuts.

"By cutting things like festivals and not cutting things like police personnel, we think we've identified cuts that were not critical to city services," he said. "Our challenge in '09 is to try to find a solution by working with our citizens."

nellis@thisweeknews.com