Richmond Heights Council, after much debate, accepts federal CARES Act money, can’t decide on Kiwanis Lodge renovation

RICHMOND HEIGHTS, Ohio — In meetings that were at times contentious Tuesday (Nov. 10) night, City Council agreed to accept federal CARES Act money, but couldn’t make a decision as to spending money on completing first-floor renovations at the building that serves as Richmond Heights community center, the Kiwanis Lodge at Community Park.

Council met Tuesday to discuss the expenditures in online committee meetings and a full council meeting.

In the case of the CARES Act money, council had to approve the ways the city would spend the $656,000 it will receive from the federal government by Nov. 20, or lose the grant. The administration put forth a resolution that spelled out the many ways the money was to be spent, but Council President Eloise Henry and Ward 3 Councilwoman Cassandra Nelson believed that council should have had a voice in determining the expenditures.

CARES Act money, disbursed by the state of Ohio, is to be spent by communities in ways that cover the costs of necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 emergency. The administration proposed using just over $633,000 of the city’s share of CARES Act funding on police and fire department payrolls at a time when Richmond Heights, like many other communities, is experiencing tax shortfalls and uncertain financial times due to the virus. Law Director Todd Hunt said many communities are using CARES Act money to pay for safety personnel payroll.

The resolution called for the approximately $20,000 that remained to be spent on several different, smaller-cost items, such as $1,947 for a new washer and dryer for use by city hall employees; $903 for hand sanitizer, disinfectant and COVID-19 educational materials for public consumption, and a new mattress for fire department personnel; and $4,300 for portable disinfectant sprayers.

“I see our opinion wasn’t taken into consideration as a council as to where this money could be allocated,” Henry objected, while speaking to Mayor David Roche. “There are other cities who invested in dividers in city council chambers (to make for safer, in-person meetings) and fixing their audio and video equipment.” Henry said council has received complaints about audio and visuals from residents watching council meetings both when in-person meetings were held, and during COVID-forced Zoom meetings. Further, she added that no money was earmarked for cyber security.

“The police and fire departments were impacted, but to the point where we say let’s allocate all the money to their salary, and nothing else,” Henry said. “(There) was no way council was brought into this.”

In his defense, Roche brought up Henry’s previous statement that she wanted the city to purchase seven notebook computers for council members, but said he didn’t know if all council members wanted one because Henry didn’t ask them. He said he didn’t want to buy seven if not all wanted one. He also said dividers have been placed in the police and fire departments and the recreation department.

“We’re trying to do the most appropriate thing and not lose any of the CARES money,” Roche told Henry, while showing frustration. He said that if council “wants notebooks and other things, we can afford to do those things.”

For her part, Nelson told Roche and council, “I personally don’t want to go back into city hall (for council meetings) without some Plexiglass, some protection for each one of us.”

“The biggest challenge is Nov. 20 everything’s got to be identified and encumbered,” Roche said when Nelson asked if CARES money could be allocated for council protections at city hall.

As the discussion over how each of the dollars and cents would be spent continued for another 20 minutes, Ward 2 Councilman Frank Lentine interrupted and said, ‘Here’s the bottom line folks, we’ve got until the 20th to accept this money.” Lentine said Henry had a point as to where the money was being spent, but added, “I don’t think we have time to debate all this right now. Let’s meet the deadline. Time is of the essence. What are we doing?” Lentine said the city needed to act now to accept the money.

Eventually, council voted 7-0 to accept the CARES Act money. But, before voting to accept the money during the full council meeting, Henry told Roche, during the prior Committee-of-the-Whole meeting, “It’s not so much about where the money’s going ( to be spent), but you (Roche) come running to us at the last minute saying, ‘This has to go,’ when you didn’t take our voice into consideration. So, I call it disrespect. If you want my vote, respect my vote. That’s all I’m asking.”

As for the city-owned Kiwanis Lodge, Richmond Heights is set to receive, through the county, federal community block grant dollars totaling $200,000, if it follows through with plans it pitched to the county for renovating the lodge’s first floor. Upgrading at the lodge would include the total renovation of two bathrooms; adding a new entrance door, storage areas and coat closet; replacing lighting in the senior hall; and installing new windows along the west wall of the senior hall. It would also include adding a new emergency generator and an outdoor event space.

“All of this would make the Kiwanis Lodge compliant and also improve its competitiveness as a revenue producing rental facility,” said Economic Development Director Brian Gleisser. Seven letters of support for the renovations were read during the council meeting. The letters came from State Sen. Kenny Yuko, of Richmond Heights, and heads of groups and exercise classes that meet at the lodge. Wendy Albin-Satin, executive director of the Community Partnership on Aging also wrote a letter stating her desire for the lodge to be upgraded so that it can house CPA programs for seniors.

The city’s share of the work would amount to $110,000. Roche called it “a great project,” and Lentine and Ward 4 Councilman Mark Alexander urged council to proceed with the work.

Nelson was not convinced. “No one wants to lose $200,000,” she said. “No one wants to lose a grant like that. However, we don’t have the funds, based on what I’ve been hearing.” Nelson mentioned that the city had to recently pass on spending money to pay for an infrared deer count because of expenses, and added, “We haven’t been able to get anything (money) for life and safety issues.” Nelson suggested waiting until 2021 and seeking another grant to make necessary lodge improvements.

When a vote was taken to suspend the rules so that a vote could be taken on accepting the grant, Nelson, Henry and Ward 1 Councilwoman Kim Thomas voted against suspension. Their votes against meant there weren’t enough votes to suspend the rules and take a final vote. Although the matter was not passed, Gleisser said the city has until March 31, 2021 to spend the grant money before losing it. The issue can be revisited.

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