Editor’s note: The following stories are part of two days of coverage detailing the changes that have helped revitalize the city of Connellsville.
Several years ago, leaders in the city of Connellsville had legitimate financial concerns. There was talk of the city being declared financially distressed, and of the state coming in to take over.
While that didn’t happen, city leaders know how close they were.
Today, the city of about 7,300 is a different place. They have $1 million in the bank, instead of owing almost that much.
“Getting our finances figured out was a game changer for Connellsville,” said Mayor Greg Lincoln, who began his first term in office amidst the financial crisis.
When he started in 2014, Lincoln said the city didn’t have a balanced checkbook. He and newly elected council members sat in on budget meetings before they took office, trying to get a clear picture where the city stood.
They learned the city was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from tax anticipation loans and realized there was no money to pave roads or put toward infrastructure improvements.
The only thing they had in surplus was blight, but, with no funds available to spend, there was little they could do to address it.
Money issues combined with little new development painted a grim picture, officials said.
SEEDS OF CHANGE
Ethan Keedy said his family was skeptical when he told them he wanted to open his restaurant, Keedy’s Pizza, in Connellsville five years ago. They also questioned his decision to run for a seat on council in 2015.
He was 20 at the time, and believed he could use the practices he employed in his business to help turn the city around.
When they asked why, he told them, “Because I want to make the city a better place. If I can do that one pizza at a time, I’m going to do it. If I can put my business mind to work at council, I’m going to do that too.”
He was elected, and named the city’s finance director when he took office in 2016. Keedy said he got right to work.
“As soon as money came in, we had it spent already. Fast forward four years and right now, we have $1 million in the bank,” Keedy said.
So, how’d they do it?
Retirements at city hall meant new hires, and new eyes looking over the city books. The promotion of longtime city street foreman Vern Ohler to the city clerk’s position was also a positive change, Lincoln and Keedy agreed.
“There were a lot of transitions. We had a new treasurer, a part time clerk, new bookkeeper, tax clerk, city clerk, and finance director in me,” said Keedy. “(There were) all these new eyes looking at the budget trying to figure out what do we need to do to not raise taxes.”
In 2013 – before Keedy or Lincoln were in office – city officials voted for the first tax increase in 25 years. A second tax increase came the following year, but there have been none since.
Keedy started holding quarterly budget meetings with department heads to see who was over budget and why. As council put together budgets, they underestimated expected revenue so they didn’t come up short, he said. It was a 180-degree change from how prior councils handled expected income, he said.
They also started using budgeting and accounting software to reevaluate purchases and uncover untapped savings and hired McClure & Wolfe LLP as the city’s accounting firm.
Lincoln recalled early discussions with one of the firm’s accountants.
“He told us how it was,” said Lincoln. “He told us how to get out of it. It was hard, but we have wonderful employees here who buckled down and did what needed to be done.”
Complete transparency with city residents helped the process, he said.
“We’ve been transparent of everything. Transparency changes a lot of things,” said Lincoln. “People know what’s going on and they understand it.”
Sustained cooperation amongst elected officials and city employees has continued the positive movement.
“We get along together. We are able to work well together. We’re able to get this stuff done,” Keedy said.
THE CURRENT PICTURE
In the past year, Keedy shopped around for banks that could help the city earn more interest on its money. They transferred funds into Somerset Trust, realizing $7,000 in interest, which is revenue – money the city can use for improvements without having to tap taxpayer dollars.
City hall is getting some much-needed improvements, such as carpeting and painting downstairs, and flooring upstairs, thanks to that money.
Council is able to consider leasing or purchasing a new police vehicle. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a big victory for the formerly cash-strapped city.
“The city has never been in a financial position before to be able to do that,” Keedy said.
He said other equipment purchases are also being considered like a new truck for the street department.
As council delves into the budgeting process for 2020, Keedy said it isn’t a tumultuous time. Because of the hard work department heads have done all year long, what used to take six budget meetings now takes half as many. Keedy expects most departments to at approximately 92% of this year’s budget by Dec. 31.
He said he gets contacted regularly by other municipalities who want to know Connellsville’s secret.
Keedy smiles when he says, “common sense budgeting.”