Where the Grass Isn't Greener

Wealthy Pepper Pike faces money trouble — and a mayor who didn't see it coming

Pepper Pike councilwoman Jill Miller Zimon doesn't sound angry so much as disappointed. She's recounting how she and her colleagues learned that Mayor Bruce Akers had withdrawn Pepper Pike from a multi-city grant application that would have consolidated services and saved millions.

For the long-prosperous East Side suburb, it meant an end to plans that seemed crucial to its long-term viability. Even worse: Zimon learned about it in the Chagrin Valley Times.

The newest member of Pepper Pike council, Zimon has made it her mission to make information more readily available to citizens, dragging a 20th-century city into the 21st century. But some are going reluctantly, and many don't feel Pepper Pike needs to change at all. Mayor Akers would be one of them.

Through Pepper Pike's decades of unimpeded wealth, Akers seemed the ideal leader — endlessly proud of his longtime hometown and eager to lavish its citizens with the best of everything. For years, Pepper Pike had the bank account to float such grand plans. But as the finances have eroded, so has support for the mayor. Already this year, Pepper Pike has cut workers and services, including police and fire. It's now placed a levy on the August ballot that would increase the city income tax by 50 percent — a move that has drawn the approval of wealthy retirees but that has incensed working families. For a city that's spent years on cruise control, an unexpected crossroads awaits.

A suburban paradise by any standard, Pepper Pike boasts spacious homes on expansive lots, a state-of-the-art public-school campus, and a median family income in the six figures. Twice in the last decade, the city has been rated the No. 1 suburb in Northeast Ohio by Cleveland magazine. With a stable population of around 6,000, it's a place where people are content to weather a lifetime together. For years, the stewardship of its mayor seemed a fitting if shortsighted match. But like the rest of the world, Pepper Pike has changed.

Joe Golish, a retired doctor who moved to Pepper Pike in the 1970s, remembers that there once were no children on the street other than his own. Now, he says, almost every home on his street has kids. Young families, drawn by one of Ohio's top public school systems, are increasingly joining the well-heeled retirees, many of whom retreat to Florida or Arizona for the winter.

Some older residents were content to let the self-assured mayor take care of things, happy with the luxurious level of services the city provided. But many younger families are double-income earners who've sacrificed a lot to live in Pepper Pike and have different interests than their snowbird neighbors. And they're not immune to the economic storms that have swept across the country.

"I'm in the financial business, so I see what's happened," says resident Don Jacobson. "In 2008, we were within weeks of having the whole system collapse. People who pay income taxes in Pepper Pike had a substantial decrease in income. Many people lost their jobs — not just residents, but people who worked in Pepper Pike. The net result was that income-tax collection was also way down."

It was a situation faced simultaneously by cities everywhere. But Pepper Pike had appeared flush throughout most of the previous decade. Not only were its residents affluent, but the city regularly benefited from the estate tax, collected by the state on extremely large properties and mostly returned to the municipality. With a sizable population of wealthy, older residents, the city took in as much as $2 million in some years — a considerable portion of its current $12 million annual budget. It appeared Pepper Pike could afford virtually anything residents wanted — and they wanted a lot.

In that climate, a new multimillion-dollar police station — the centerpiece of what would eventually be a new civic center — didn't seem out of line. After all, the city had a top bond rating and would be retiring its only outstanding general-obligation bonds in 2011. The project, initially proposed by Mayor Akers in 2004, moved into the planning stage in 2007. That plan was unveiled to the public in 2008; architectural renderings were commissioned and prepared, despite the objections of some citizens who warned that Pepper Pike would not be immune to the general economic downturn.

Up till then, though, Pepper Pike seemed immune to financial hardship — at least it spent as though it was.

With his well-groomed, thinning gray hair, obligatory conservative suit, and striped tie, Bruce Akers still looks like the banker he was for so many years. He speaks with the lofty tone of a man who has given matters careful thought and is assured that his way is the right one.

The mayor's old-school confidence is the kind bred through years of elite education and prosperous employment. He attended University School, then Princeton University, then the Stonier School of Banking at Rutgers. Now 76, he retired from a successful career in finance in 2000 when he was vice president of civic affairs at KeyBank.

But politics has long been Akers' sideline. Shortly after moving to Pepper Pike in 1969, he was "asked to run for city council," as he puts it, and he served from 1971-1975. He was then tapped to be chief of staff for Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk, who was ousted by Dennis Kucinich in 1977. Akers returned to Pepper Pike council and served until 1991, when he was elected mayor. His lengthy service gives him historical perspective as well as deep investment in a community whose assets he's quick to tout. And many in town are quick to credit him for having steered the city well.

"I have a philosophy that local government can be responsive and constructive, and can make use of tax dollars to provide services," says Akers. Of course, most cities don't provide backyard rubbish pickup or a free Red Cross emergency-preparedness training program for residents, two of the services Akers points to proudly.

But others feel that Akers' autocratic style was better suited to an earlier era.

"He's always had an 'I'm bulletproof' attitude," says Golish. "He's acquired that narcissism that goes with powerful people who have enjoyed free rein. I don't think he's in touch with the need to involve others."

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the controversy over the new police station.

Few dispute that Pepper Pike's current station is inadequate. "When it was built 40 years ago, the police department was less than half what we have today," says Akers. "In those 40 years, there have been significant changes in law enforcement, in communications technology. We've outgrown this department. It's obsolete; it's inefficient."

Fueling Akers' plan was his leadership in regional government — and his vision to have Pepper Pike at the center of it all. He was one of the lead voices in the Cuyahoga County government reform movement that passed a new charter last year, and he spearheaded the city's Efficient Government Now grant application with Moreland Hills and Orange. The $100,000 grant would have funded recommendations made by an earlier Baldwin-Wallace College study to combine police and other services, and to operate a single dispatch center — saving the three cities combined as much as $3 million annually.

"He's been a very vocal supporter of regionalism — for everyone else," says one Pepper Pike resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "But he doesn't live by it for Pepper Pike. He says our people wouldn't like it; the dispatcher is too far away."

In order to serve as a center for regional services, Pepper Pike's police station would need to be grand in scope. It was drawn up to be five times the size of the existing station, at a cost of $6.5 million. It would be the hub of a new complex that would eventually include fire, service, and administrative offices, adding another $8 million to the price tag. For this reason, it came to be known by critics as "Police Mahal."

But for the mayor of well-to-do Pepper Pike, it seemed, there was no other way.

The minutes from the city's October 21 council meeting reveal a lively session, with mayor and council double-teamed by a flood of backlash from the concerned citizens who make it their business to fill the gallery. Joe Golish bemoaned the size and cost of the police station, and how such an expense could lead to layoffs in the city. Akers bristled in response. "Nobody said anything about laying off police," he responded, according to the minutes. "It is irresponsible to even mention that, because it has never been discussed."

Once the audience comments had concluded, the meeting adjourned at 9:45, and the council retreated to an executive session to discuss collective bargaining with police.

Almost two hours later, council resumed its regular meeting "for further discussion of the city's financial situation and in particular how this relates to the new police station." The council unanimously concurred with the mayor's recommendation that any further planning of the new police station be "put on hold until the revenue stream is more favorable."

By that point, all the critics had gone home.

By January, Pepper Pike's money problems — with or without a new police station — had come into focus. With a decline in revenue, there was discussion of furloughs, salary cuts, and buyouts.

On April 30, the city announced the layoff of 25 percent of its police force — the very layoffs it had been "irresponsible to even mention" six months earlier. Following a series of townhall meetings in which a 75 percent income tax hike was proposed, council agreed to take a 50 percent increase to voters in August in hopes of bridging its financial gap.

Some residents claim Akers misled them all along about the true state of Pepper Pike's finances. They felt that the city relied too heavily on the unpredictable estate tax, which had plummeted to only $400,000 the previous year after a run of million-dollar-plus years.

"The estate tax has been both volatile and large, relative to our budget," explains councilman Rick Taft. "We got used to a pattern where we would have years when the estate tax would keep us from going into the red. What I concluded when I tried to figure out why we didn't see this coming was the city needed to undertake multi-year budgeting every year."

"The way the city functions is, the mayor can pretty much do anything and then come to the council after the fact," says Joe Golish. He says that when a group of citizens wrote a letter outlining their concerns about the police station project, Akers "called them fearmongers and dissidents, and belittled them." He also routinely refers to them as "anti's."

Don Jacobson comes to the defense of the mayor. "This is a good city. It is well-run. It's not broke, and we're not going to let it be broke," says Jacobson, who served on the long-range planning committee that approved the police-station project.

As for critics like Golish? "They are troublemakers," says Jacobson. "They contribute nothing. They have no ideas. I have no use for them at all."

On May 4, about 75 puzzled and worried residents gathered in the atrium of Moreland Hills Elementary School for a town hall meeting to talk about the money crunch and the potential tax levy. As he has for years, Mayor Akers demonstrated his gift for salesmanship when it comes to espousing his own ideas.

He opened with a five-point presentation, printed on a large piece of paper tacked to a white board — "PowerPoint" is not in this mayor's vocabulary — titled "What We Value in Pepper Pike." It touted the town's safety, infrastructure, services, low taxes, and top bond rating. It felt like a campaign kickoff for the levy, complete with talk of free H1N1 inoculations and police cars equipped with defibrillators.

But citizen after citizen stood to express concern about the police layoffs announced the preceding Friday. Worried mothers said they would surrender backyard trash pickup to have the cops back. They asked for reassurance that levy money would be used to rehire them.

Conflicting generational interests were exposed too: Some residents pointed out that an income tax would hit only wage earners — many of whom are already struggling to get by, even in Pepper Pike. The city's wealthy retirees, meanwhile, would be off the hook entirely. In the end, despite his confident talk, it seemed the mayor hadn't been successful in convincing concerned residents that passing the income-tax increase was the right thing to do.

Mayor Akers has been a major advocate of regionalism, but his attitude seems contradictory when real opportunities for regionalism are presented. Even his allies in council seem to notice this.

"There are people who question the mayor's decisions and timing on issues," says Cookie Morgenstern, who has served on Pepper Pike council for 25 years. "I don't think he ever expected to be a deity of any kind. He does listen to us. Everyone on council is anxious to do the best job they can. We all represent different segments of the population, and that's good. We are not a rubber stamp; we try to come to a point where we all agree to get the best job done."

"It's that paternalism thing," says Jill Miller Zimon, council's newest member. "It's not malicious. He relies on himself to come up with a solution and then to sell it. He doesn't get that voters and residents expect something quite different these days."

Zimon is an ardent believer in transparency. She runs a blog called WritesLikeSheTalks.com and started another after her election last fall, dedicated to discussing local issues with Pepper Pike residents. In March, she and fellow councilwoman Gail Mayland refused to OK the city's 2010 budget, which was dropped on council the day before the vote.

"They wanted us to rubber stamp it because they said we had to get something to the state by March 31 and we could amend it later," says Zimon. "I'm not going to approve something I haven't had a chance to study. The mayor, it drives him nuts. He's never had that kind of resistance before." Zimon eventually voted yes, once she had read the budget.

Though he was a principal architect of the regionalism grant application, Akers pulled out of it, saying that the city needed to deal with its own financial difficulties first — even though the goal of combining services was to save money for all the cities.

Even more troubling than the decision was the manner in which he shared it. Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda told her council on April 14 that Pepper Pike had pulled out, according to the Chagrin Solon Sun. Asked a day later about they city's decision not to go ahead with the grant application, Pepper Pike Vice Mayor Clevis Svetlik said, "If that's true, that's news to me."

Joe Golish attended a three-hour April council meeting in which Akers kept quiet about the city's withdrawal from the grant. "At the same time," Golish says, "the presses were already rolling. The mayor said it was 'our' decision when it was his decision. The council found out by reading it in the paper."

"This is the way he's operated all these years," says resident Manny Naft, who, with Golish, has been among Akers' harshest critics. "He had basically a rubber-stamp council. He needs to take responsibility for what happened. He should be stepping aside. He shows no signs of changing or adapting."

But Akers says he has no intention of stepping aside. He defends his fiscal record and the need for the controversial levy.

"We realized we had been depending on estate tax; some people criticized me for that," he says. "We were using estate tax dollars to supplement the general fund. The information is out there, but I don't think people cared as long as services were provided. We saw this trend coming, but the bottom dropped out in 2008, thanks to the recession and a 78 percent drop in estate tax revenue."

Passing the levy, he says, will be an uphill battle, and he blames critics like Naft and Golish. "I saw you talking to the anti's last night [at the town hall meeting]," he told a Scene reporter. "They're obviously against the tax. They're going to fight it. It's going to be a hard campaign; we have our work cut out for us."

Not so, says Golish. "Any one of these 'dissidents,' as he calls them, will tell you the city needs revenue, and we want to help. But giving the mayor carte blanche is something no one is prepared to do." Golish claims he has nothing against the mayor personally, but feels he's become ineffective.

"There are people who are willing to sink the ship to get rid of the captain," Akers says. "It's inevitable in politics. Some just have feelings about me. That's their right."

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