CUYAHOGA FALLS — In a straight party line vote, City Council on Monday night narrowly approved two pieces of legislation pertaining to the creation of a new department to oversee the city’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, as well as communications and community outreach efforts.

Council voted 6-5 in favor of both an ordinance to create the Division of Neighborhood Excellence, Communications and Community Outreach (NECCO) and a second measure to amend monetary appropriations for this division. Council’s six Democratic members backed the two pieces of legislation, while its five Republicans opposed the measures.

At the committee meetings on April 16, Mayor Don Walters said the creation of NECCO is needed so the city has a “dedicated team working on disseminating accurate information to the media and public at large.” The mayor said the department will also be responsible for overseeing the city’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative and its Neighborhood Ambassadors, which will include providing information and resources to the Ambassadors.

For community outreach, NECCO will provide a point of contact when an organization contacts the city for assistance with, or participation in, an event or program, said Walters.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” said Walters. “But we need to build on that momentum and the city is not the roads and the buildings. The city is the people, and we want to harness the power of the public.”

Views among City Council members expressed during the past two meetings were divided along party lines.

“I’m excited about the move and the new department,” said Councilman Tim Gorbach (D-At Large). “I can’t wait to hear about all the wonderful things that this accomplishes.”

Councilman Mike Brillhart (D-5) added, “We’re here to serve the public. [The new department] just enhances that.”

Councilwoman Mary Ellen Pyke (R-2) said she thought the money being used for NECCO could be used to hire four community police officers who could work with the Neighborhood Ambassadors. By handling it through a policing program, Pyke said it “takes away anybody’s ability to say that it’s political.” Pyke said she reviewed the information provided by Walters showing the types of tasks handled by other cities’ communications departments.

“We are currently staffed to do these duties,” said Pyke, who noted examples of such tasks included records requests and planning meetings.

Councilman Russ Iona (R-8) said he disagreed with creating NECCO.

“I have a hard time going out and talking to somebody about a ditch that’s flooding in Ward 8 and have somebody tell them that it can’t be fixed because the city has no money and then we’re looking at creating a whole new department,” said Iona. “Those things do not balance with me. I like the idea of the volunteerism. I think it’s a great idea, but I do not support creating a whole new department that’s going to be funded with taxpayers’ dollars.”

Council President Mary Nichols-Rhodes (D-4) spoke in favor of NECCO.

“This department is actually a reorganization,” said Nichols-Rhodes. “This is doing things better with what we have. In fact, in the long run, I think it’s going to cost less. To say that we say we don’t have money for the streets, that’s inaccurate. We have budgets for all the different services the city provides, many of which are being provided right now, but can be done so better and that’s what this department is…This is a very good use of tax dollars.”

Expenses for department

Since NECCO will begin operations in May, this year’s NECCO budget is about $220,000, according to Finance Director Bryan Hoffman. Adjusted for a full year, the estimated annual budget is about $329,000, said Hoffman.

In that annual budget, there will be a total of $25,000 in pay raises for the current city employees who will be moved into the roles of Neighborhood Excellence, Communications, and Community Outreach Director ($12,965) and Administrative Specialist ($12,130), said Hoffman. With the exception of the pay raises, all of the other costs are being shifted from other city departments, said Hoffman.

The Riverfront Centre District Department is being eliminated and money from that budget will cover NECCO operations costs and the salary of one of NECCO’s employees, who will receive the same level of pay she now receives in the Riverfront Centre District Department.

A second NECCO employee is currently being paid from utility billing, and that funding source will remain the same, said Hoffman.

The city had been transferring money from the General Fund to the Leisure Time Fund, but that transfer will no longer happen and Hoffman said the money that remains in the General Fund — about $230,000 — will cover the salaries of the other two NECCO employees.

The ordinance creating NECCO lists four positions in the division that are all slated to be filled by current city employees.

Councilman Adam Miller (R-6) proposed amending the ordinance to eliminate one of those jobs — administrative specialist — and to add verbiage stating that the new division would administer the Neighborhood Excellence Initiative program “in collaboration with Ward and At-Large City Council members.”

The amendment failed by a 7-4 vote, with the six Democrats and Pyke voting no.

Before the vote, Miller said adding the collaboration language “alleviates some issues that residents were having as far as their thoughts that this [division] could possibly circumvent Council.”

Miller said some of the job duties for administrative specialist “are already there. They’ve been provided in the department with the department heads.”

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