Budget woes mark first 100 days
April 17, 2009
The new Summit County Council, sworn in Jan. 7, has crammed a lot into its first 100 days. The slumping economy has overshadowed the past few months as councilpersons have struggled to familiarize themselves with county government.
Voters brought to power an ambitious group when they elected the first five-member Summit County Council in November.
And councilpersons, who replaced the former Summit County Commission, expect to hire a manager this summer who will oversee day-to-day operations in the County Courthouse.
In 2006, barely a majority of voters supported changing the government model because, critics say, the manager is not an elected official who will answer directly to them.
Assistant Summit County Manager Anita Lewis admits she was skeptical about the change.
"A fear I had was that the manager was going to have all this power. It was a fear that local citizens would lose their voice, that they would lose their say," Lewis said. "The fear was always that we were going to change and expand and turn into a place where no one knows your name."
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Under the old form of government, Lewis worked as administrative assistant to the County Commission.
She voted against the change. One-hundred days into it though, she is optimistic.
"If I voted today, I would vote for it," Lewis said. "We have the five best council people that I could ever imagine serving And we have a manager who day to day, you can spend five minutes with or ten minutes with."
But Summit County Auditor Blake Frazier said his opinion about the new form of government hasn’t changed since he campaigned vigorously against the ballot proposition.
"I wouldn’t vote for it because it is not a good form of government," Frazier said.
More staffers are needed to support the five councilpersons, compared to three county commissioners, he said.
"It is more expensive," Frazier said.
Hiring a competent county manager will mean paying the person a six-figure salary, he said.
"The previous form of government could have done the same thing. All they had to do was go out and hire a manager. They didn’t have to go through all this hoopla of adding two council members," Frazier said.
Meanwhile, Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds praised the recent work of interim County Manager Brian Bellamy.
"But the verdict is out on what the manager’s role will be It’s not without controversy and that’s OK. That is inherent in our system of government," Edmunds said. "I do believe that, in this form of government, the county manager needs to take a predominate role and flex that executive muscle."
Rules that prevent the County Council from engaging employees and constituents in talks, when topics fall under the purview of the county manager, concerned councilpersons during the first 100 days, Summit County Councilman David Ure said.
"There is a bit of frustration on all five of our parts as to what we can and cannot do. I still feel that, as an elected official, I have a duty first of all to my constituents," Ure said. "It’s hard to turn those reins over to the manager, and we’re all wondering how the new manager is going to fit in."
One of his top priorities as a councilman was to help resolve several lawsuits filed against Summit County, Ure said.
"It has always been my goal to get out of these lawsuits and not be sued anymore, and it appears that is on the other side on the manager’s side," he lamented. "I think all five of us feel the very same way in that, we need to make some corrections down the road on this."
The new form of government places the executive power, the old County Commission maintained, into the hands of the manager the County Council will hire.
"The voters voted for a separation of legislative and executive powers and it’s been very difficult for [the County Council] to realize that they do not get involved in the day-to-day operation of the county anymore," Frazier said. "You’ve seen a lot of bantering going back and forth between the council and the attorney and the council and the manager. It’s a tough thing for anyone to give up supposed power, and executive power in the county has gone to the county manager."
Summit County Clerk Kent Jones said he also voted against changing the form of government.
"I didn’t support it because I just didn’t like all the executive power going to one individual," Jones said. "But I believe the transition to this point has been pretty smooth."
Balancing the budget this year with declining tax revenue could provide the council its greatest challenge, Summit County Councilman John Hanrahan said.
"We’re not going to meet the proposed budget in terms of revenue proposed, and we’re still cutting budgets," he said. "We’re trying to make decisions that are in the interest of the county, rather than a group in the county or a side of the county Once the manger is hired, the budget is our single most important duty."