CUYAHOGA FALLS — The merits of a new city department handling communications and community outreach efforts, as well as the city’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, were debated by council members on Monday evening.

City Council in April voted 6-5 in favor of creating the Division of Neighborhood Excellence, Communications and Community Outreach (NECCO). At that time, Mayor Don Walters said NECCO was needed to provide "accurate information" to the media and the public, oversee the city’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative and serve as a point of contact when an organization contacts the city for assistance with, or participation in, an event or program.

Council’s six Democratic members backed the legislation, while its five Republicans opposed the measure.

Those divisions were still apparent when NECCO’s 2019 spending plan was reviewed by council’s finance committee on Monday. The proposed 2019 budget is $339,584, with $282,539 earmarked for personal services and $57,045 set aside for other operations.

Kelli Crawford-Smith, director of the NECCO department, reviewed what her department had accomplished since it began operations in May.

"Our department has taken on the necessary task of increasing communications with residents and businesses, strengthening neighborhood relationships and involvement and building stronger relationships and community outreach efforts throughout the city," Crawford-Smith said.

Crawford-Smith said her department is responsible for issuing press releases, handling copy for the city magazine and newsletter, as well as updating the content and photos on the city’s website. Other duties handled by NECCO include conducting public surveys, doing data analysis, writing utility billing messages and communicating on city projects and promotional photography.

NECCO oversees the Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, which includes a Neighborhood Ambassador program where citizens are encouraged to become "informed and involved." Crawford-Smith said NECCO has increased its email communications with ambassadors who are charged with relaying information to their neighbors about city programs and services. NECCO recently started Front Yard Informational Meetings, where ambassadors meet with their neighbors in their front yards and share information about city programs and services.

Crawford-Smith said NECCO is working with business leaders, community leaders, nonprofits, faith leaders and the schools to provide information about city services and programs and "look for new ways to serve our constituencies more efficiently and effectively."

She noted a highlight was an "On the Table" event where the city worked with the Akron Community Foundation to host faith leaders "to start a conversation about diversity and social inclusion." NECCO was also responsible for organizing the Falls Downtown Fridays summer events, Fashion in the Falls, Drug Take-Back Day and the Humane Society Adopt-A-Thon. The Falls Downtown Fridays events raised more than $37,000 for local charities, said Crawford-Smith.

"Everything you listed is a pretty amazing start," said Council Member Tim Gorbach (D-At Large).

Council Member Mike Brillhart (D-5) told Crawford-Smith that her department was a "catalyst for developing civic pride and spirit. It’s sorely needed. For what this costs, I can see the benefits are tremendous."

Council Member Russ Iona (R-8) questioned whether much of the information being provided by NECCO was "redundant."

"Can’t they get a lot of this information [in] other places?" asked Iona.

Noting that people now get information from the internet, social media and other methods, Crawford-Smith said, "the way get their news is changing.

"I don’t think that it’s redundant because I don’t think that there’s ever going to be a time that we’re giving enough information out to our residents," Crawford-Smith added. She said Walters typically tells his staff that the city’s programs and services "are only as good as the amount of people that use them and know about them."

Iona asked: "You don’t see a duplication?"

"If I’m doing a duplication, it is the same message in a whole lot of places so a whole lot of people can see it," said Crawford-Smith.

Susan Truby, who served as the city’s community development director under former Mayor Don Robart, said she felt NECCO writing press releases "is a duplication of efforts in my world." Truby noted each city department handled its own press releases when she worked at city hall and added that the types of events highlighted by Crawford-Smith were handled by existing city departments when Truby was community development director.

Council member Paul Colavecchio (D-At Large) said it’s "always frustrating" to go through the budget process and "see the administration be micromanaged on what they’re doing." He added he felt the administration was "doing an exemplary job."

Council member Drew Reilly (D-1) emphasized that the NECCO department was "budget neutral."

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.