The Akron Ballot Initiatives: My Cheat Sheet

There are three local Akron initiatives. Again, I lean heavily on the Akron Beacon Journal here, which wrote a strong endorsement of Barack Obama, writing:

Where does Obama want to take the country? He wants to enhance the investment in education and research, essential to competitiveness in the knowledge economy. If his pledge to reduce the typical premium for health insurance by $2,500 a year is mostly guesswork, his overall plan reflects the pragmatism required to repair a costly and inefficient system of health care. He seeks to add fairness to the tax code, responding to trends in income, wealthier households doing far better, too many Americans experiencing flat paychecks in this decade.

So, here it goes…

7. Proposed charter amendment City of Akron … to authorize council to appoint the clerk of council position in the unclassified service.

Yes.

A snoozer. This seems to me to be mainly a technical amendment. Te city clerk is appointed by the council, and answers to its members. Currently, though, the clerk falls under civil service, meaning that she answers to the mayor.

The Beacon Journal Writes:

Under the amendment, the clerk would serve solely at the discretion of the council, making it clear whose interests are being served. The mayor has similar authority over the top administrative officials who make up the Cabinet. …

It is reasonable for the City Council to directly employ its own clerk, whose hiring and firing would require a majority vote.

That seems reasonable to me.

8. Proposed charter amendment City of Akron … establishing a scholarship fund for Akron resident students.

Yes.

At first blush, not much to get excited about. But this one has generated quite a bit of controversy locally, because, to pay for the scholarships — which local students would use to pay for college, technical, or trade school — the city would lease the Akron sewer system. The Beacon Journal called it the “sewers-to-scholarships plan.”

As near as I can gather, here’s how it would work. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic hopes to collect upwards of $200 million by leasing the sewers to a private firm. With that cash, he would create an endowment to fund students’ tuitioin. All students would be able to apply for the scholarships — whether they attended public school, private school, a nonprofit school, or were home-schooled.

As the Beacon Journal wrote in a recent editorial:

The city scholarship program would operate on the principle of the ”last dollar.” In other words, a student first would seek to gain college grants and scholarships from other sources. If he or she proved successful, the city then would make up the difference between the amount awarded and the cost of tuition at the University of Akron or a city trade school.

Follow the logic, and more resources from the city scholarship program would be available to those households not eligible for need-based awards. That translates into scholarships for the middle class, for those families and students who face the burden of paying for a substantial share of a college education.

Read more here.

But is leasing the sewers such a good idea? In a separate editorial, the Beacon Journal notes:

The fundamental point of a lease arrangement is that the city would still own the sewer system, retaining under its terms the right to make sure the system operates safely and in compliance with environmental regulations. Retaining city ownership would keep the pipeline open for federal money to cover upgrades. Terms of the lease would require the operator to use properly trained and certified personnel.

Rate hikes would be capped. And the 100 sewer system workers would be retained by the city, so no jobs would be lost.

As the Beacon Journal notes, the big picture, it seems to me, is this:

The Akron Scholarship Plan is based on a simple, but bold, premise: A well-educated work force would help jump-start the city’s economic future. What voters should know is that the plan, to be financed by leasing the sewer system, would be surrounded by a complex web of safeguards to protect rate payers, sewer department workers, the system itself and students who would receive tuition to the University of Akron or a trade or technical school in the city if Issue 8 passes.

There’s plenty of precedent for the idea of private companies running public utilities. Nationwide, private entities run some 1,800 government-owned plants. It doesn’t always work out, but, as the Beacon Journal points out in yet another editorial on the subject, “many … have found the partnerships beneficial. A private company has operated the sewer system in Indianapolis for 14 years, the water system in Jersey City, N.J., for 12 years.”

Sure, there’s a risk. But if we are going to increase access to educational opportunity and keep Akron competitive, we need a creative approach to solving today’s challenges. Issue 8 is exactly that.

9. Proposed charter amendment City of Akron, requiring a majority vote of the citizens for the sale, lease, or transfer of city utilities.

No.

This would amend the city charter and require that voters approve any action to sell, lease or transfer a city public utility. It was put forth by opponents of Mayor Plusquellic’s plan to lease the sewer systems, as a way to challenge it.

The Beacon Journal writes:

The city already has a vehicle for citizens to express their will independent of elected officials. First, they must gather the required signatures to reach the ballot. Then, they must persuade a majority of voters to side with their view.

In other words, voters are already voting on whether to lease the public utility — that’s issue 8. We don’t need to set in stone, as the Beacon Journal puts it, an “all-encompassing requirement regarding city utilities.”

That’s my take. I’d welcome your input, if you agree, disagree, or have any thoughts.

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