City officials mulling big service changes

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — The future of city services will start to come into focus this week as Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. is expected to present a historically austere budget recommendation for fiscal year 2011.

Looking to slash nearly $20 million compared to last year’s spending levels while still maintaining adequate cash reserves, O’Reilly last week reiterated that every service and amenity the city offers has been carefully evaluated and reconsidered.

Assets are for sale, nearly 30 city positions are targeted for elimination, and contract changes with private companies that provide city services loom.

Among the tools used to mete out those difficult decisions are a mayoral budget task force comprising 30 business and community leaders; a resident survey taken last year that asked people to rank the importance of different services and their willingness to pay for them; and a series of involved budget study sessions between members of the administration and the city council.

City officials say the cuts have been brought on by a precipitous decline in property tax revenue combined with increasing structural costs, such as pensions and employee health care. And while the city consistently has cut staff and reduced expenditures since 2001, the $20 million represents the single largest drop in revenue in the city’s history.

It’s a drop that could take more than a decade to recover.

A recent study by accounting firm Plante & Moran projected that it could take until 2024 for local municipal property tax revenues to rebound to their prerecession highs in 2007.

“We don’t even know what the new normal is yet,” O’Reilly said. “We are trying to make the decisions now, knowing what we do, that will put us in a position for stability in the future. But people need to understand that this money isn’t coming back anytime soon.”

When O’Reilly formally presents the budget to City Council members on Thursday, they will have until June 30 to adopt it or negotiate changes. But whatever the end result, it is certain that there will be drastic changes to many city functions.

Waste pickup changes
The city’s garbage removal contract with Waste Management Inc. is set to expire this summer, and city officials say they would like to move to a system where each house has one large can for recycling and one large can for garbage.

The labor costs for such a system likely would be reduced, as the canisters can be emptied using a robotic-arm-equipped garbage truck rather than the current approach, which requires at least one person to drive the truck and one person to handle the garbage. A pilot program using this system was instituted last year in an eastside neighborhood, and city officials so far have been pleased with the results.

“We have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of litter in the neighborhood, and recycling has increased quite a bit as well,” city spokeswoman Mary Laundroche said.

City Council President Thomas Tafelski said if a large canister system was approved, he would hope to see some form of amnesty or by-appointment large pickup service included as part of the contract.

“I think that we would want to consider allowing households, if they want, to purchase an extra canister depending on the garbage they create on a weekly basis, and also that we would still allow for large pickups, as long as they were properly scheduled,” Tafelski said.

In addition to changes to the trash pickup, the city is considering eliminating one of the remaining vestiges of a bygone era when tax dollars were used for sidewalk plowing: curbside leaf pickup.
Dearborn is one of only a few southeastern Michigan communities that still offer this once-fairly common service, but the high operational and maintenance cost for the city’s fleet of heavy duty equipment necessary for the work could make it expendable.

Finally, one change that is certain is the new rules for the city’s public service days. Residents this year will be responsible for keeping vehicles off their street between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. every week on their given trash day.

This is a departure from last year, when the no-parking policy only applied twice monthly.

The changes were instituted to help residents avoid confusion about which trash days they couldn’t park in the street by making it an every-week policy, Laundroche said. She said it also likely would allow street sweeper crews to get more sweeping done because it would cut down on the number of cars to avoid in the street.

“It’s basically another efficiency that we have added and we’re optimistic that it will help increase compliance (from residents),” Laundroche said.

Pools targeted for closure
One of the biggest changes laid out by O’Reilly is the proposed closure of six neighborhood pools. He foreshadowed the possibility in his March state of the city address, when he described the city’s outdoor pool review by the Recreation Commission last year that was supposed to identify cost-cutting measures, but ended in inaction.

He said the data the commission used showed that some pools had become unsustainable and should have been closed. Alternatives were discussed, such as less-expensive splash parks, but a final decision never was made because of emotional responses from residents.

“We didn’t pursue the less costly alternative of the splash parks, and modest savings weren’t realized,” O’Reilly said in the address, “meaning we’re facing an even tougher financial decision now.”

Under the terms of the proposal, Summer-Stephens, Ten Eyck, Crowley, Whitmore-Bolles, Lapeer and Hemlock pools all would be closed permanently, demolished and then backfilled. The city would keep open Levagood and Ford Woods, which would be home to a new larger, more modern facility. City officials also are in talks with Dearborn Public Schools officials about offering some indoor swimming opportunities at local schools.

If the closures move forward, city officials expect to save $132,000 in annual operational costs. But more importantly, closing them would eliminate the need for roughly $3.8 million in major improvements to the facilities.

The city has spent more than $1 million on recent improvements to the pools, including $766,000 last year for new interior shower plumbing fixtures at Lapeer, Whitmore-Bolles, Summer-Stephens, Ten Eyck and Crowley. But city officials say those were small changes compared to what would be required to keep the pools safe and operable.

Laundroche said each pool on the closure list needs to have a new “hull” installed. She explained the hull as a metal lining to the cement pool structure and said such repairs would average about $550,000 per pool. The current hulls were put in during the early 1970s, and with a projected lifespan of 25 years, are beyond obsolescence.

The pool-closing proposal has drawn a dramatic public backlash that Laundroche said has included countless e-mails, phone calls and letters to City Hall. A Facebook group titled “SAVE DEARBORN’S small POOLS” had gathered more than 3,011 followers as of press time.

The public outcry led city officials to call a meeting last Monday to discuss the closings. Part of the meeting was expected to include an informational presentation by Plante & Moran employees concerning just how dire the economic outlook is.

When asked whether he would consider a special pools millage, O’Reilly said it would be shortsighted to ask taxpayers for that when there are so many other core city functions facing severe cutbacks.

“There are people that are going to blame me for this,” said O’Reilly, “but the simple truth is that if we’re going to seek a millage, it would probably be for police or fire.”