Middletown readies for flurry of activity in 2017

The next 12 months will bring a flurry of activity in Middletown, but elected officials were given warning that 2017 meant getting down to business.

In October, while presenting his 2017 budget proposal, City Manager Doug Adkins told council members: “Next year is honestly probably going to be the hardest year for many of you that you’ve ever been on council. I’m going to throw a lot of stuff at you. We’re going to be out in the public a lot, talking to people. You’re going to hear a lot of discussion, you’re going to hear a lot of differing views.”

The city’s plans for 2017 include continuing to attract new businesses and several budget-related items that will impact residents, including possible water and sewer rate increases and a possible senior services tax levy.

More businesses to fill vacant storefronts

Hoping to build off the 32 new businesses that decided to make downtown Middletown their home in 2016, Mallory Greenham, Downtown Middletown Inc. executive director, said work to continue the momentum into 2017 starts now.

The organization plans to unveil this month its Downtown Master Plan, which will be an attempt to chart a new future for the downtown, including a 21-acre space along the Great Miami River between Carmody Boulevard, Water Street, Central Avenue and 2nd Avenue. Upgraded street lamps and benches also are expected, as is an effort to create more of an identity for the downtown.

“Downtown Middletown is coming out of a fabulous year of growth and momentum,” Greenham said. “ In 2016, we had 20 new street-level businesses join us, not including the 12 new studios and microbusinesses that went into the Pendleton Art Center ….”

Greenham, who became a full-time employee last April, expects that trend to continue, with more businesses filling vacant storefronts.

“The interest has never been higher for businesses searching for both retail and restaurant space, with an uptick in both millennials and baby boomers searching for living space within the district,” Greenham said.

Businesses planning to open soon include Liberty Spirits, Central Tap & Pint, The Slice, Rolling Mills Brewing Company, and Gracie’s, a “big-city comfort-food” restaurant coming to the former TV Middletown building.

The city will also look to continue growing business in its East end. While Elder-Beerman announced it would be closing its location at Towne Mall Galleria in Middletown at the end of this month, several new businesses have opened in the area, including a Buffalo Wild Wings, Aspen Dental and Planet Fitness.

Community events to attract new visitors

Community events will also be a focus for the city in 2017. In 2016, the city put up digital billboards along I-75 and along Ohio 122 near the I-75 interchange to let residents and the outside world know about things happening in the city.

The annual holiday display Light Up Middletown continues to set record attendance. Volunteers also recently planted several new trees at Smith Park, where the event is held.

Downtown Middletown Inc. in 2016 scored big hits with such events as its Women's Wine & Chocolate Walk and its Craft Beer Walk, with interest continuing to grow.

Greenham estimated that half of each event’s participants came from outside the Middletown area, which she previously told the Journal-News was “always good to get fresh eyes and get people downtown.”

The city also plans to hold a Fourth of July fireworks display in 2017. Adkins in recent months has said the city’s Independence Day fireworks, which make for the city’s biggest party of the year, will return in 2017 for a third straight year.

Possible water, sewer rate increases

As previously reported in the Journal-News, Butler County commissioners have an interest in partnering with the city of Middletown on its water systems, which could mean lower water bills for residents and businesses and more money for the city to complete infrastructure improvements.

“We can deliver water cheaper than they (Middletown) can deliver it to themselves now,” Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News last week.

In October, Adkins proposed an increase in sewer rates by 15 percent; water rates by 7.5 percent; and garbage/recycling charges by 5.3 percent during a budget presentation.

The trash/recycling fee, now $14.25 per month, should rise to $15, Adkins suggested to council, because environmental regulators are requiring additional methane monitoring at the city’s landfill.

The typical residential sewer bill is $28.15 per sewer, based on use of 600 cubic feet of water per month, and that would rise about $4.22 per month. The typical residential water rate would climb from $20.60 per month by about $1.55.

“This is not raising to just take money,” Adkins told council in October. “We have projects scheduled to use that money, and continue to upgrade our water and sewer infrastructure. And again, the whole idea behind this was to increase more now, over the next few years, so when the larger expenses for the long-term control plan came, we weren’t making huge, 20-, 30-, 40-percent increases down the road. We could spread them out over time, get the benefit of having them now.”

Layoffs may be needed

The city could be forced to make difficult budget decisions in 2017. The city’s 2017 spending plan is so tight, Adkins warned council in December, that layoffs of city employees may be required.

The city is experiencing financial problems because it is self-insured for its employee health care and expenses have been significantly above expectations, Adkins told council last month.

Because of the higher health-care costs, the council approved transfer of $1.25 million from the city’s general fund — essentially, its checking account that is used for most purposes — to the city’s employee benefits fund, a month after City Council approved the 2017 general-fund spending plan of $30.3 million. That $1.25 million will serve as a loan to that fund. It follows a $750,000 transfer last year to the same fund.

Belt-tightening moves, including leaving vacant positions open until at least June, are in place. And if things don’t improve, layoffs are possible, city council was told last month.

Voters may see tax issue on ballot

Council last week took the necessary step of approving a resolution that asks the Butler and Warren county auditors to calculate Middletown’s total current tax valuation and the dollar amount that would be generated by a 1-mill senior services levy within city limits.

Council was told in December the organization had been unable to pay off its mortgage with its first levy due to $450,000 in annual budget cuts from Butler County.

With this levy — unless there again are significant state-driven budget cuts — Central Connections should be able to pay off the mortgage that remains on its approximately $1,260,000 in principal and also build a fund to maintain the building, according to Richard “Dick” Isroff, a Central Connections board member and levy co-chairman.

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