STATE OF THE CITY
MAYOR DON PLUSQUELLIC
City of Akron Press Release
From the desk of Stephanie York
APRIL 2, 2014
JOHN S. KNIGHT CENTER
(As Prepared for Delivery)
Thank you, Dan, and good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.
I’ve been wondering what happened to you all!
I wrote a particularly insightful State of the City speech last year, and no one showed up.
I shouldn’t have to apologize for not doing the speech in 2013. I actually had three different surgeries in a period of seven months and besides there have been many people - - including my staff and family - - who have been trying to get me to stop talking for years.
This year’s State of the City is presented and co-sponsored by the Akron Press Club, the Akron Roundtable, the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club and the Greater Akron Chamber. My thanks to these organizations for working together to host this event.
The Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs of Akron have been supporters of this event, since I was elected Mayor in 1988.
My special thanks to the staff of the Greater Akron Chamber for making the arrangements for today’s program.
Let me also thank the members of my family who are here today. Their support has been important to me over the last 40 years. Yes, 40 years in public office.
I also need to acknowledge the presence of many city workers here today, including my cabinet and office staff. They are some of the hardest working people in the city, and every week, I ask them to go above and beyond their normal duties to take care of the residents and businesses of Akron, and they almost always perform.
In a recent presentation of the Akron Tomorrow group, even those leaders were shocked that we do not have the 3,400 full-time city employees (the amount we had in 1981) but only 1,850 doing the same jobs successfully for the taxpayers of Akron today. And because they literally put their lives on the line for us every day, I want to honor the men and women of our safety forces. Under the leadership of Police Chief Jim Nice, crime rates have gone down the last two years with the lowest number of police officers in decades. It is worth noting APD solved all murders but one last year. Under the leadership of Fire Chief Rob Ross, the fire rating system ISO improved our public protection classification rating from a 3 to a 2.
Akron also benefits from a group of honest, dedicated, hard-working elected officials - - well at least the vast majority of those that have served on City Council. I feel lucky to have good people, sharing a vision for the city and working together to make improvements and my thanks go out to president Garry Moneypenney and the city council members who are here today.
And since I will be talking about collaboration among governments later on, I want to recognize a “first” today. I don’t think we’ve ever had the Mayor of Cuyahoga Falls at this event, so I’m especially pleased to welcome Mayor Don Walters here today.
I have often used this event to review the news of the day, and the accomplishments of the past year. This year, on your tables, we have placed a brochure that lists many –but not all – of our recent accomplishments. I wanted to list all of the many people who contribute to make Akron a city that is exceptional among our peers. But I was sure I would leave someone out, so I want to thank all of you that have been a part of whatever success we’ve had.
While I can honestly say that the state of our city is strong relatively speaking and as stated in the Kiplinger Letter -- Akron is “poised to take advantage of the upturn in economy.”
Today, I want to spend time not just bragging about the past, but focusing on the future:
- How are we preparing our children for life in the 21st century?
- What will our investment be in the environment, and what will it mean for our children tomorrow.
- The state of healthcare for our whole community.
- How should we manage local government in the future?
From the time I first became Mayor, we have taken a long-term view of issues and have been preparing Akron for the future. We have reached out several times to get our citizens’ opinions.
In 1999, I started the Imagine.Akron initiative, and we took a year gathering opinions from a thousand Akron residents to look 25 years out into the future. That seemed like a long time, but now, we’re more than half-way there, and the bicentennial of Akron is just 11 years away.
To update our Imagine.Akron report, and to identify what issues people are concerned about AND willing to invest in – I am launching a new program that will give us instant feedback from the residents of our neighborhoods, and from the various communities we serve.
I’ve always said I’m not ashamed to admit that I steal good ideas from others—whether it’s a biogas plant in Germany that allowed us to be the first in the U.S. to use that technology, a new design for sound walls that I saw in Europe, or a program that has been implemented, and would be good for us- like the Kalamazoo Promise,
This particular idea was used in Hampton, Virginia, and it was called “I-Value.” In the middle of the economic crisis, when money was tight, and the city needed a way to decide what was a priority, they met with groups of people in existing organizations to sort out spending priorities.
Our “I-Value”– “Akron Values” program will go to existing organizations, filled with people who care about our community and who volunteer to improve our community -- from seniors and youth groups, to athletic and arts groups, to social service organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary and the Boards of Trade. We’ll meet with those people first and then expand to assure everyone has an opportunity to provide input and be able to have direct influence on our choices on how we prioritize and plan for the future.
I’ve asked two former cabinet members to head this program – my former Planning Director Warren Woolford, and Rick Merolla - who at different times in his career directed the departments of Finance and Public Service, and until his retirement served as my Chief of Staff.
As this rolls out, you’ll hear more about the details.
As we plan for the future, I would argue that nothing focuses your vision on the future like grandchildren.
Each of us who is lucky enough to see the continuation of our families to another generation knows the hope we have for them. The world they inherit will be different than the one we grew up in, the world we were given to take care of and pass on. I’d like to focus on what we need to do to be successful in the future starting with providing the education that young people need just to get a job in today’s environment.
Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of joining a conference put on by the Gates Foundation in Washington. Bill and Melinda Gates have become the world’s most generous philanthropists—and in the US, they are focusing on education.
It affirmed what I have been saying for many years – that our children MUST have education beyond just a high school diploma to be prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
I want to give credit to David James for giving kids a jump start through several innovative programs.
First, Akron Public Schools have 33 separate career education programs that train students for real jobs for everything from engineering to masonry. The graduation rates for our career education students has earned the top state rating, and Akron has earned a “B” grade for successfully placing graduates directly into competitive employment or post-secondary programs.
While no one doubts the great difficulty of managing an urban school district in today’s world – Akron’s Early College High School stands out. It has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and is the 2nd highest ranked school in Summit, Medina, and Stark Counties -- second only to Hudson.
Early College High School also received the “High Progress” School of Honor designation awarded to the top 10 percent of schools, ranked by gains in reading and math over five years.
Students who attend Akron Early College complete their entire high school career on The University of Akron campus, and not only receive a high school diploma, but most of them also receive an Associates degree.
A collaboration with Stark State College is the dual enrollment partnership, which now has 324 students participating. This year those students will earn nearly 1,000 credit hours of college work while they attend high school. There is no cost to our students for college credits, and they can transfer credits to any Ohio four-year college.
This offers a tremendous opportunity for students not only because of the cost savings but for those students who may doubt their ability to do college work or are intimated by the thought of going on a college campus, they can get confidence by taking classes in familiar surroundings.
Superintendent James is exploring additional opportunities through the University Innovation Alliance and we, as a community, should assist him in every way possible to support more students beginning their training for a job early including going into the trades and tech jobs not just four year degrees.
Another collaboration involves the city, the schools, and Stark State that will provide lower cost adult educational opportunities for adult residents to help prepare them for jobs as skilled workers in high-demand fields.
We provide classroom space and the technology infrastructure at three of our middle school Community Learning Centers, and Stark State offers web-based and on-site classes to adult learners for college credit. The global recession and restructuring of the economy has left some people unemployed or underemployed – because they lack the training in certain skilled careers. This collaboration will help close that gap.
This is exactly what we had in mind when we created the Community Learning Centers. We envisioned the community using these buildings, and I am thrilled to see one of my dreams for added opportunities for our citizens come true.
Classes have already begun at Innes, Jennings and Hyre. Students from the Akron area already make up 26% percent of Stark State’s enrollment and comprise half of the college’s enrollment in high-demand programs. It’s also important to note that more students transfer to The University of Akron from Stark State than from any other community college.
I can’t help but mention here that the State of Michigan is considering offering a scholarship/loan program that 10 other states have apparently started. They pay the entire cost of college or technical school, and students have to pay back a percentage of their earnings, but only when they are employed. They call it “pay it forward.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it? I got beat up on that very issue, but it looks very promising for the states that have started it.
We have had success in various new education programs, and we will pursue another partnership for the future – one that is exciting and consistent with our record of looking at innovative ideas and developing programs to assist people.
Anthony Margida, CEO of our award-winning Global Business Accelerator, has developed a program to assist people especially young, bright, potential inventors by creating a place called Bits and Atoms where people can come and make or create new products for the market place. Anthony had already developed the plan even before we saw a similar facility in Omaha called, Maker Place.
The governor is expected to sign today a new capital budget bill which will allocate $2 million dollars to the city’s Global Business Accelerator for this program.
Again, it will be a partnership with Stark State, but may be developed in an unconventional location. We are still evaluating alternatives but when the Morley Health Center is vacated – When they relocate all public health services to the new location on West Market Street – this city building could become home to the Center for Bits and Atoms.
Anyone here who knew Dr. John Morley, our health commissioner for decades, would know that more than anyone of his age - - he appreciated imagination and creativity, and I have a feeling he would approve of this use of the building that bears his name, in this way.
He was also very practical -- always looking for reasonable solutions. So I also think he would be proud of our efforts to improve the environment for future generations.
Today, our environment is better than at any time since I began public life 40 years ago. We’ve cleaned the air, the water, and we are behaving in ways that will make our world sustainable.
Thirty-five (35) years ago I served on the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee of the National League of Cities, and I learned of many of the problems our country faced, as we started to deal with the after-effects of decades of industrial growth without regard to lasting health effects. I started almost immediately as mayor to deal honestly with many of these problems. We spent millions of dollars on a treatment plant; we dealt with drinking water issues; stopped burning trash at the Recycle Energy Plant; and hired scientists to start the process of evaluating the amount of effluent discharging into the Cuyahoga River, BEFORE the EPA mandate.
It’s always about balance – how to have clean water, and still be able to pay for it. In most major American cities built before 1940 – we have the issue of sewers that combine the flows of sanitary material – with sewers that contain storm water.
Last December, I withdrew the Updated Long Term Control Plan that has been pending in front of the federal judge for over 2 years.
In 2012, after personally pleading with the U.S. EPA to allow us to look at new technology and the affordability for our citizens, they formally developed a new method to allow every city an opportunity to develop an Integrated Plan – one that allows more options including “green solutions” and a more realistic method to determine affordability.
Since 1991, I have been working to find an acceptable and cost effective way to deal with this issue, and in 2002, we did reach agreement with the state on a comprehensive plan, but were prevented by the U.S. EPA from moving forward. We did reach a second agreement with the state and federal EPA’s in 2008, but it was rejected by Judge John Adams.
In 2011, we submitted an agreed and updated plan, but it languished on the judge’s desk –as costs continued to soar. Keep in mind while the politically motivated naysayers have been telling people that “Mayor Plusquellic hasn’t done anything,” we’ve actually spent over $300 million dollars on our sewer system since I’ve been Mayor.
Let me repeat that - - $300 million dollars - - and took a system that had 144 violations in 1986 to zero in 2012 and just one in 2013 as measured by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
The cost to construct these projects has increased from 2002 – about $370 million dollars, to $780 million dollars in 2010, to $1.4 billion dollars today.
To construct these projects at the level Judge Adams demands would impose a tremendous burden on the citizens of Akron and our other sewer users and we would be asked to do more than any other city in the United States.
Akron deserves the same cost-saving mechanisms that the U.S. EPA finally started to publicly embrace in 2012. That’s why we withdrew the current plan and hope to participate in the Integrated Planning Process. Based on my personal conversation with one of the top U.S. EPA officials, Bob Perciasepe, and recent follow-up meetings, I’m very hopeful.
Not only do our grandchildren deserve clean water at an affordable price, but clean air as well.
We’ve been notified by the EPA that we must shut down the boiler at the old BF Goodrich complex by September, 2015.
This is the boiler that produces steam that is used by Children’s Hospital, Akron General, Canal Park, Canal Place and other downtown buildings. These users have no current alternative heating/cooling systems available to them.
That’s why last November, we asked Akron voters for permission to donate the Akron district heating system to Children’s Hospital.
This move will ensure that the hospital and Akron General have the heating capacity they need to provide top quality care.
The system needs significant repairs. Children’s is in the midst of a 10 year building expansion plan, including a new critical care tower that requires steam from this facility.
We are still working with Children’s Hospital to determine the best alternative which includes the possibility of shutting down the larger system and building two or three smaller systems and that will be determined soon by Children’s Hospital and a group of system users. I publicly want to thank Bill Considine, Tim Ziga and the hospital board for their willingness to help us take on the task of finding the right long-term solution for the whole community.
Some of you may have heard about a group of mostly community medical leaders going to Cuba in February-- organized by Kent State University’s College of Public Health.
We were led by another former outstanding health director Dr. Bill Keck, who has been talking to me about the Cuban medical system for years.
Like so many people who visit the country, I was astonished at the dramatic difference between our health care systems.
There’s a lot about Cuba that we would not like as free Americans – but no one in Cuba lacks health care. There are no emergency rooms jammed with the uninsured, seeking help for everything from a bad cold to cardiovascular disease.
The Cuban system has made health for all citizens a priority not a pay for service method where we lead unhealthy lifestyles and health services are provided when we are sick.
They have 70,000 doctors – in a country with approximately the same population as Ohio, where we have 20,000 physicians. Clinics are everywhere and doctors try everything to keep people healthy.
Even though we spend twice as much as the next most costly nation, Americans rank 31st among nations in life expectancy, 36th in infant mortality, 28th in healthy life expectancy for men, and 29th in life expectancy for women.
The United States has been the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee universal health insurance to its citizens.
Every employer – every person looking at the upward trend of health costs that may cripple our country as our population ages, and gets sicker – every employee whose share of their own costs for health care continues to rise – knows that this is a national crisis and we still haven’t figured out a way to incentivize a “healthy citizen” system. We are still on a pay for service mentality, which leads to more prescriptions, more surgeries and more sick people means more money to health care providers.
In Washington, the response has been the Affordable Care Act, adopted four years ago this month by a very divided Congress. Since 2010, we have been preparing for nothing less than the most radical shift in national healthcare in over 60 years.
The last time we saw a shift of this magnitude was during Harry Truman’s presidency when the United Auto Workers tried to get around wage and price controls by having the major car companies provide health benefits instead of wage increases. And a 60 year tradition of employer-provided health care was born.
This is a complex issue… and I’m certainly not expert enough to give advice to our national leaders, but I do like the quote from the business publication, Business Insider Magazine -- which recently began an article with these astute… thoughtful….profound words: “The American healthcare system sucks.”
I know that the new federal law will put unprecedented pressures on hospitals to reduce costs while at the same time improve results. We need to develop our own local strategy which puts our citizens first and maximizes the existing outstanding local health systems here.
What has been most important for our region is that we have retained local control of our health care systems. Akron is unusual, in that if you look at the governing boards of Summa, Akron General and Children’s – you will see dedicated local people in charge. Many of them are in this room today.
In today’s health care environment, that is something we can no longer take for granted.
So why am I talking about this today? Well, let me put it in my terms. I do not want to sit idly by and wait for Akron to be Gettysburg. When 70,000 gray coats came north and fought 94,000 blue coats at Gettysburg, the result was 45,000 casualties in 3 days. When the soldiers left, Gettysburg was pretty much destroyed, and the residents of the town were left to pick up the pieces.
If two national power house health systems are successful in taking over our two hospitals, my concern is that our citizens’ health care will suffer as well as the commitment to charity care that will surely be compromised. This would have consequences for the entire community. Unlike Cleveland, we don’t have a tax-supported “public” hospital where charity care can be delivered.
Ever since a blacksmith from Middlebury left his estate to build a “city” hospital -- 120 years ago – we have relied on City Hospital, now Summa, and People’s Hospital, now General – to provide excellent care to our citizens as well as to provide all of the care to people who cannot pay. They have done an excellent job.
I know some make the argument about the benefits of competition. Well, why is it that some of the people who complain the loudest about duplication of government can’t see the need to stop duplicating expensive parts of our health care system. You only need to look at two emergency centers in Stow and two in Green - - literally across the street from each other to see the best example of duplication and additional costs right here in our community.
I’ve tried to get the business leaders of the community –who do not disagree—to persuade our two adult hospital systems to end the wasteful duplication.
In a city, about the same size as Akron – Grand Rapids Michigan, their corporate leaders – from Amway, Steelcase, and others – got together in 1994 to insist that competing hospitals bring efficiencies to the costs of care by consolidating. Two adult hospitals – Butterworth and Blodgett ended up merging, saving $170 million in the first 5 years, and today the new system Spectrum Health serves most of western Michigan.
Data from the Ohio Hospital Association shows that in Greater Akron, our two adult hospitals share about 75,000 inpatient discharges each year. Together, they do about 60,000 surgeries and have about a quarter-of-a-million emergency room visits.
And if we are to believe the ratings that have placed our three Akron hospitals in the top tier of American health systems - and I do, because I’ve used them all – probably more than anyone here. They do provide excellent care.
Yet, this mantra of competition seems to be engrained in some of the board members of our hospitals. I ask you to look at this differently: If competition is so good --- how is it that we have a single provider for children?
If competition in health care is so good – why don’t we have two children’s hospitals? Is anyone going to make an argument that somehow Akron would be better served if the Clinic or University Hospitals would open a new Children’s Hospital in Akron?
Why is it that until the age of 18, one hospital is good enough, but as soon as you become an adult, we have to compete? Children’s Hospital is one of the finest children’s hospitals in the country, with almost 10,000 patient discharges, 15,000 surgeries and 95,000 ER visits. The idea that we need two adult hospitals duplicating costs makes no sense. By the way, there IS competition – Cleveland hospitals are just a half-hour away, and a number of our people already go there.
I believe we should band together, with our citizens’ best interests as the motivator, and take on the medical world. If we’re not that good, then we should stop saying it.
This is not a new idea. There have been talks before among all three hospitals, to see how this might happen. But each time, it’s been stymied by this idea that competition is more important than anything else.
But we live in a completely different world than we did 20 years ago. And I believe those differences endanger our local control.
I do not want these outside national interests coming into Akron, the blue coats and the gray coats, with the result that we become a Gettysburg of health care, left to pick up the pieces after the battle is done by shifting health care decisions from local, caring people in white coats, to some executives in 3-piece suits far from Akron.
If the individuals involved can’t figure out a way to make that happen, then an alternative might be to have an over-arching board, made up of representatives of the ten largest employers. You might ask why? Because they pay for over half the medical and hospitalization costs, including the costs that are rolled-in from people who can’t afford to pay.
In addition to those ten, you might add representatives appointed by the county executive, the probate judge, and by the presiding judge of common pleas court. And possibly a representative from the Chamber to represent small businesses.
They could act as sort of a county-wide “certificate of need” evaluation group, similar to what used to be a state law. But their decisions would not be made by people in Columbus, but by local, caring people.
And even if we give them no official legal authority, they could be a strong voice to insure collaboration between medical entities, and as the report by Batelle Institute suggested, the medical entities are not collaborating as much as we say, or as much as they should, to be able to bring about better results from the hard work being done by Dr. Frank Douglas and his team at the Austen BioInnovation Institute.
It would be a shame if a lack of cooperation jeopardizes that effort which holds so much promise. If it is put on the back burner, it could really impact our residents and future job opportunities in the medical industry.
I’ve spent a lot of time over my 40 years in public life challenging the status quo.
For example, when I proposed merging the Akron Building Department with Summit County and when I proposed merging an award-winning Akron Health Department with the county, there were numerous cries that these governmental department mergers would not work, or “we tried that before.”
There are always reasons not to change. But with regard to these changes, we have had nothing but praise from the builders in this community who apply for building permits; and for the last two years, we have saved over $1 million dollars each year from the Health Department merger.
I might turn the tables on some and say why don’t we run the businesses like the government of Akron and Summit County which leads me to my next subject.
There has no one who has truly been more collaborative in improving our community than Russ Pry, the County Executive.
He recently solved the problem of agonizing over writing his State of the County speech by just not writing one, and having a reporter lob easy, softball questions at him. I could do that, too. But given my proclivity of long answers, I’d only get two questions in.
As I look to the future, on how this community needs to prepare to compete in a fast-changing world, it has been my belief for years that we should look to Louisville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida, Indianapolis or Omaha as examples.
In those communities they have stopped the Balkanization, the separation, the duplication, and the competition between small units of government that were actually laid out in the 1800’s. They merged or united. Once again, I’ll say it - taking on the rest of the world – by establishing a unified governmental unit of metropolitan government, if you will, that is more efficient by ending the duplication. (Unlike the inefficiency we have now with 20 police chiefs, 15 fire chiefs, and so forth.)
They became more effective, and more importantly, better able to deal with the complex world that we are competing in.
There are various ways to do this. But one only needs to examine the success of the merger of our building department and health department – to see the benefits. I’ve long stated that people hold on to power inversely proportional to the power they actually have. In other words, the elected official in some of the smallest places will argue that they MUST retain the power to direct three officers they have patrolling their community. But if we could come together and work out a plan that’s fair to everyone, we would all be much better off.
After all, we are inextricably connected. The sooner that suburbanites recognize that the world sees Stow and Green as “Akron” or “Summit County,” and the more we work together, the more everyone in the region will benefit.
I would argue that Russ Pry is perfectly suited to take on this task. To lead that effort, and to become the executive of an entity we might name something else… but an entity that we look at in a realistic way, because I believe our grandchildren’s future will depend on the way we can become more effective in governing ourselves.
There you have it. My belief on what we must do to prosper in this ever-changing world –entering into the great unknown called the future. Although it may be filled with uncertainty, it surely will be filled with opportunity, if we prepare for it continue to make the tough decisions. And most of all to work even more closely together, to keep Akron the strong, innovative leader amongst communities of the world, as we are seen today.
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