Akron council approves 2023 budget, but not everyone is on board
Akron City Council has been staunchly divided over several issues in recent months, from the White Pond Reserve housing development to appointments to the city’s new police citizen oversight board.
The latest controversy? The city's budget.
City council approved the $798 million operating budget Monday night, but five council members voted against it. The 2023 budget had to be passed by Friday, March 31.
The division was over Section 56, a decades-old provision in the budget that allows the mayor to authorize certain “consulting” or “professional” contracts over $50,000 without council’s approval. It supersedes a line in the city code that requires all contracts in excess of $50,000 to go before council.
Last year, Mayor Dan Horrigan approved 173 such contacts for a total of more than $30 million — all without council’s OK.
A $155,000 contract with former mayor Don Plusquellic for consulting services was approved by Horrigan without a council vote. So was an $80,000 contract with Hennes Communications — which employs former city spokeswoman Stephanie York — for media relations assistance after the fatal police shooting of Jayland Walker.
Several council members took issue with Section 56, saying it strips council’s legislative check on city departments.
Councilmember Shammas Malik, who is running for mayor, said he will not approve the budget unless that line is revised or removed.
“Fundamentally, I think it comes down to trust,” Malik said. “I think this is an area in which we, as council, have a strong responsibility to play an accountability role when it comes to contracts and finances.”
Malik called Section 56 a “loophole” that allows the mayor to “pick and choose” which contracts to bring before council.
Councilmember Tara Mosley, who is also running for mayor, voted no on the budget, as did Councilmembers Russ Neal, Linda Omobien and Nancy Holland.
Akron Finance Director Steve Fricker said the provision is most commonly used to approve contracts for day-to-day operations in the city, as well as in emergency situations or if council is in recess. Examples include design projects or capital projects that are already ongoing, Fricker added.
However, he said his department and other city officials want to work with council to modify the language.
“The administration agrees. We think that language should not exist as it does, going forward,” Fricker said. “We are simply asking for a month or two to talk to our managers and employees that have existed in these divisions under this framework that we’ve had for 60 years, [and] ask them to weigh in.”
City officials have committed to bringing all contracts over $50,000 to council as they consider how to rework the provision, Fricker added.
Council President Margo Sommerville and Vice President Jeff Fusco proposed a resolution calling for the creation of a special committee on council to work with the finance department to modify the provision. Council decided to take time to consider the resolution.
Mayor Dan Horrigan urged council not to oppose the budget.
“It is a real notion, come Friday at midnight, you know, if you don’t pass a budget that these things will not happen. There’s a number of different things across the city that just won’t happen because we haven’t passed a budget,” Horrigan said in the Monday budget committee meeting.
Horrigan did not say which specific city services may be affected by missing the deadline.
Medical debt relief included in 2023 budget
The city’s 2023 operating budget includes $63 million of Akron's American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation, which will be used for renovating community centers and pools, lead abatement and rehabilitating homes, among other priorities.
The city will also add a new class of 38 police officers in April and continue recruitment efforts to meet staffing challenges in the department, public safety officials said.
New to the budget is a $372,000 allocation for the city’s civilian police oversight board, a nine-member board that will oversee the city’s police auditor’s office and review complaints issued against Akron Police. The city is working to fill one vacant seat on the board.
The money will fund salaries in the three-person police auditor’s office and help fund training for the board, city officials said.
The budget also includes a 4% cost-of-living increase for city employees.
A last-minute change to the budget meant a $500,000 allocation to help relieve residents’ medical debt. Council passed an ordinance Monday night allowing the mayor to enter into a contract and publicly advertise for bids to work with an organization and enact the debt relief.
Councilmember Holland proposed using some of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief funds to help relieve medical debt two weeks ago, a resolution unanimously approved by the council. Holland has suggested partnering with nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which has worked with other cities on similar projects, for the debt relief program.
The city’s finance department worked over the past week to determine a dollar amount, Holland said. Officials did not give specifics about how they decided on the half-million dollar number.
Medical debt relief couldn’t wait till next year, Holland added.
“The ability to get the care we need, and to do so without losing everything – this ‘crazy’ idea that this is a human right and one worth fighting for,” Holland said.
Over the past few weeks, medical students from Northeast Ohio Medical University — who had approached Holland about proposing medical debt relief — packed council chambers and shared personal stories of seeing patients devastated by medical costs.
Max Brockwell, a second-year medical student at NEOMED, worked at a skin cancer clinic before he was a student. In that role, he met a patient diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer and shared the patient’s reaction to the diagnosis.
“In the face of this serious diagnosis, what really troubled me was, this patient's response was not to ask our team how long they had, what are the treatment options or the side effects, what [is] the prognosis?” Brockwell said during council’s March 13 meeting. “His response was sobering: "How am I going to afford to pay for this without my family going into bankruptcy?”
Other Ohio cities, including Cleveland, have considered using federal COVID-19 relief money or other funds to help relieve residents’ medical debt.
Akron council passed the ordinance 12 to 1. Councilmember Neal, the sole “nay” vote, said he agreed with the proposal but had concerns about the city “finding” $500,000 for debt relief, but opposing funds for other projects Neal has suggested in the past, such as gun violence prevention.