New city council sworn in

Members of Marietta City Council took the oath of office Wednesday morning, then convened for their first meeting, setting the city’s budget for 2014 and discussing what the new year may bring.

Gathered in the community building at Lookout Park, council unanimously approved Ordinance 1, which outlines how the city expects to spend $42,758,753 this year. Of that amount, $10,480,424 is in the general fund, which covers numerous city services and expenses, the largest of which are under the category of public safety, at more than $5.5 million.

Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward and chairman of the finance committee, said the city looks to be in good shape for the year ahead, but council will have to look beyond that.

“My concern continues to be our capital improvement fund,” he said.

That fund, which is intended to pay for building and equipment improvements, receives one-seventeenth of the city’s income tax revenue, to the tune of about $470,000 a year, Vukovic said. The budget adopted Wednesday projects that fund balance to be more than $2.9 million this year, but a good deal of that is already earmarked for long-term expenses, including the city’s portion of the renovation of the new Marietta Municipal Court building, a much-needed software upgrade and planned renovations to city hall.

“Normally we have a full pick of the money that’s available to use,” said Bill Dauber, assistant safety-service director.

Vukovic said council will have to consider and discuss with the public ways to increase revenue and build that fund back up.

The general fund had a $1.77 million carryover from 2013, bolstered by about $450,000 from the inheritance tax. That tax was eliminated by the state in 2012, so while there may be some estates left unsettled, the city won’t be able to count on significant windfalls from it in the future.

Vukovic also noted the city income tax was up 8.2 percent last year. He attributed that to increased oil and natural gas activity, but did not want to rely on that trend continuing indefinitely.

“We don’t know how long that’s going to last,” Vukovic said.

Mayor Joe Matthews said he’s optimistic about the upcoming council term, despite concerns mentioned by Vukovic.

“I don’t think of doom and gloom; I think of prosperity,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to have here the next two years.”

Councilman Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, noted a lack of money in the $42.7 million budget for enforcement of the city’s recently adopted property maintenance code. He asked fellow council members to work with him to identify funding for that purpose.

“We’ve got properties that definitely need attention yesterday,” Kalter said.

Councilman Michael Mullen, I-at large, said he’s looking forward to council finding new chambers, likely in the former Army National Guard Armory, in the new year.

“I guess that’s a resolution for the new year,” he said. “Let’s get off the plastic tables and metal chairs (at Lookout Park) and get down to where we belong on Front Street.”

City Law Director Paul Bertram III updated council on the Seventh, Pike and Greene streets intersection traffic and safety upgrade project. All rights of entry have been agreed to with six property owners affected by the work, which includes adding a turn lane. But Bertram said negotiations are still going on with four of the six on how much the city will pay to acquire pieces of land ranging in size from a couple hundredths of an acre to more than a tenth of an acre.

“If that doesn’t go forward within the next two weeks, then there will be an appropriation action taken,” Bertram said, meaning the city would file suit to acquire the land in time for the project to begin in March.

An hour before the special meeting started, council members were sworn in for their new terms on the steps of the city building on Putnam Street. Six incumbent council members took the oath, along with newcomers Kathy Downer, at-large councilwoman, and Josh Schlicher, council president.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Downer, a Democrat elected in November in her first run for public office. “I was nervous about today for some reason. I don’t know why (because) I’ve been prepared for it.”

Downer said she attended a number of council and committee meetings, especially those focused on the budget she voted for Wednesday.

Schlicher is returning to council after serving a year to complete an unexpired at-large term in 2011. But as council president, he casts votes only in the event of a tie, runs the meetings and assigns members to committees.

Schlicher said he plans to be a “hands-on” president, communicating with the administration and departments to plan ahead and formulate council’s agenda.

“I’m going to be active with the administration to bring projects to council,” he said.

Also sworn in Wednesday morning was Republican Cathy Harper, a former councilwoman who was elected treasurer in November. She’s already been on the job for over a month, having been appointed to complete the unexpired term of her predecessor, Valerie Holley, who stepped down late in November.