Levy proposal generates debate at London city council

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This conceptual design shows the layout for the addition of a proposed new community center and a new police department on property the city of London owns at First and Walnut streets.

(Posted Jan. 26, 2022)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

The London city administration is proposing a tax levy to increase the city income tax by 0.5 percent to help fund the fire and EMS department and to build a new community center and a new police department.

The proposal calls for a $25 million loan for a 30-year term. If approved by voters, London’s income tax would go from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. The additional tax dollars would cover an increase in operational funding for the fire department and debt service for the construction of the proposed new buildings. The approximate cost of the proposed levy to the average London citizen would be $152.06 per year, according to Mayor Patrick Closser.

The levy legislation was introduced at the Jan. 20 city council meeting. The proposal calls for placing the increase on the May 3 ballot. The deadline to file issues with the Board of Elections for that election is Feb. 2. Council scheduled two special meetings prior to that deadline to consider the legislation. The first takes place today, Jan. 26, at 6:30 p.m. The second is set for Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Both will take place in council chambers at city hall, 20 S. Walnut St.

Police Department

The city hired an architectural firm last year to conduct a feasibility study regarding construction of a new police department. Currently, the department is housed at 10 E. First St. in a building that dates back to 1920.

Police Chief Glenn Nicol said the current facility lacks basic necessities with many rooms serving multiple purposes, impacting efficiency. The department currently operates in 6,000 square feet of space.

The administration is proposing the construction of a new 18,000 square-foot building to house the department on First Street (on the former London City Schools campus).

This conceptual design shows the potential interior layout for a new community center proposed by the city of London administration. It includes two full gyms, an overhead walking track, and multi-purpose rooms.

Community Center

While conducting the feasibility study, the architectural firm offered to include a study regarding a new community center. Currently, the city’s community center occupies a building on the former London City Schools campus. The gym dates back to 1963. Participation in recreation programs is up, and space is limited.

The administration is proposing construction of a new 60,000 square-foot community center at the corner of First and Walnut streets where one of the old school buildings now stands. The facility would include two full-size gyms, spectator seating, an overhead walking track, and multi-purpose rooms that would be available for meetings and private gatherings. Space also would be set aside for a new home for the London Visual Arts Guild (LVAG) which currently occupies a former school building on First Street.

To make room for a new community center and new police department, the administration is proposing demolition of the large school building at the corner of First and Walnut, the former vo-ag/art building (currently home to LVAG) on First Street, the former school administration building behind the bus garage, part of the bus garage, and the old boiler room behind the gym.

Fire/EMS funding

When the fire department took over the city’s EMS services from the Madison County Emergency Medical District in 2019, the city dropped the 3.5 mills in property tax it collected to pay for EMD’s services.

“We did not want to over-collect taxes for fire/EMS. We knew we could operate for three years without additional funding,” Closser said. “We knew that after three years we would better understand the operational needs and would then come to the voters to request the appropriate tax needed.”

The fire/EMS department is now in its fourth year of offering both fire and EMS. At the Jan. 20 meeting, council approved legislation regarding the American Rescue Plan grant (COVID-19 relief funds) it received from the state. A total of $800,000 of that funding will go to the fire/EMS department this year. Closser said the department will be OK financially through this year but will need additional funding starting in 2023.

At the Jan. 20 meeting, council voted 6-1 to amend the proposed levy legislation to stipulate that no more than 0.25 percent of the 0.5 percent income tax increase would go to funding for the fire/EMS department. Council member Greg Eades cast the “no” vote.

Community and council comments

Andrea Dillion, a London resident and real estate agent, said the proposed community center would be great addition and the fire/EMS and police departments deserve support, but said the city’s focus should be on infrastructure issues. She has gathered a list of 61 residents who are against new projects or taxes until the city’s storm sewer issues are addressed. She cited several examples of flooding around town that have been problems for decades.

Closser said infrastructure needs are a top priority and will continue to be no matter what happens with the proposed levy.

Council member Rich Hays, sponsor of the levy legislation, commented, “Infrastructure repairs will be ongoing forever. We cannot stop growing and improving all other city services because of the continued infrastructure improvements.”

About the proposed new facilities and the increased funding for the fire department, Hays said, “I’m proud to sponsor this legislation and bring this information to the voters. This is something that city really needs, and I am excited to be on city council to have the ability to help the city grow and improve.”

Several council members stated that the city needs the additional funding for fire/EMS, a new police facility, and a new community center. Henry Comer, council president, is among them, but he said there should be separate levy requests, rather than lumping all three items into one levy. He also feels the levy proposal is being rushed. He wants to see more time for council study and public input before placing any levy on the ballot.

Eades also wants to see more time spent on discussion before considering a levy for the ballot. He mentioned the financial numbers specifically.

“The need for speed is not as great as the need to make sure this will do what is expected and is what we as a council want to present as something we have passed,” he said.

Council member Josh Peters asked the city administrators the pros and cons for placing a levy on the May ballot versus the November ballot.

Closser said one reason to go with the May 3 election is to give city leaders time to regroup and try again in November should the levy fail in May.

“Either way, we’ve got to figure something out for the fire department and EMS,” he said.

Should council decide to place a levy on the May 3 ballot, they would have three months until the election to further discuss the proposal and meet with the public, Closser said. By voting to put a levy on the ballot, council members are not saying they are for or against it, just that they are giving the voters the power to decide, Closser said.

After discussing the proposed legislation, Hays moved that council suspend the three-reading rule to allow for an immediate vote. Eades and Peters voted “no” on the suspension. Hays, Andy Hitt, Bryan Robinson, Anthony Smith and John Stahl voted “yes.” That put the vote at 5-2. To pass, a suspension requires a super majority of six “yes” votes. So, the legislation to put a levy on the ballot did not pass on the first reading.

After further discussion and debate of the rules of council, council voted 6-1 to schedule two special meetings for second and third readings of the legislation prior to the Board of Elections issue filing deadline. Peters made the motion to schedule the meetings. Eades cast the “no” vote. The third reading is set for Feb. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers.

Closser said anyone who has questions about the proposed levy and building projects can contact him at city hall, (740) 852-3243, or by email at pclosser@londonohio.gov.

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