‘Financially stable’ city poised to face uncertain future

Photo by Tom Tigani

Mayor Frank Vaslo (right, at podium) is joined by scholarship winners and honorees of various Lincoln Park civic groups during his annual State of the City address. He used the occasion to honor the students’ and the groups’ contribution to the community before providing a summary of the city’s current financial situation.

‘I’ve never seen normal. Every year it’s been a series of cuts and crises that we’ve had to manage in order to get where we are.’
— Mayor Frank Vaslo

Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK — Residents here can be proud that they live in a town that has worked to right its financial house in preparation for the difficult economic times that lie ahead.

Mayor Frank Vaslo recently delivered that message to a crowd of some 120 businesspeople and officials from the city and neighboring communities at the Robert Jones Council 3078 of the Knights of Columbus.

He said 20 years of planning “very poorly” have caused the state’s financial troubles, as well as those that recently have surfaced in other neighboring communities. Lincoln Park was in that same boat, Vaslo said, until receiving an unfavorable audit in 2003 that predicted a $50,000 budget deficit the following year.

“After some finger pointing, we assigned some blame and realized that wasn’t going to help anybody,” Vaslo said, “and then we got down to work.”

Shortly afterward, officials decided to hire Steve Duchane, Lincoln Park’s first city manager.

“Over the last seven years your city government has worked to reinvent itself,” Vaslo said. “We are guided by our agreed-upon strategies and policies we have developed and adopted budgets that reflect the new reality of municipal finance.”

Those budgets have reflected adjustments in wage and benefit packages that have resulted in the city now having a fund balance of $4.1 million at the end of fiscal 2009-10, which is where auditors have told officials is “right where we should be,” Vaslo said.

“You live in the most financially stable, best-run city Downriver,” he told residents.

Vaslo said he couldn’t take credit for that status and praised the work of Duchane and Finance Director Lisa Griggs, who has won the Governmental Finance Officers Association for budgeting for the past four years. The mayor also thanked employees for their shared sacrifice, saying they’ve gone without raises for seven years and are paying more for health care and prescription drugs and have given up two holidays. Residents also have shared in the burden, Vaslo said, passing public safety and library millages, the last of which was favored by 80 percent of voters.

“That is unheard of,” he said. “We live in a remarkable city, and I can’t thank you all enough for the support you’ve given this city over these tough last few years.”

Much of the future, Vaslo said, is based on what’s being planned in Lansing, which changes almost daily and makes the $4.1 million surplus so important. To illustrate his point, he recalled a recent conversation with a resident who asked him when things might get back to normal.

“I’ve been in this business for eight years,” he said. “I’ve never seen normal. Every year it’s been a series of cuts and crises that we’ve had to manage in order to get where we are.”

At the moment, where the city is with a budget of $23.6 million, with future plans for budgets of between $19.5 and $21 million, based on things staying as they are right now at the state level.

“We will approach the problems as Lincoln Park has always these issues,” Vaslo said, “with our eyes wide open and taking the appropriate actions that we need to keep this city stable and afloat.”

The “new normal,” he said, will involve cooperation, consolidation and service sharing. As an example, he pointed to the Downriver Central Dispatch recently formed between Lincoln Park, Southgate and Wyandotte, which he said so far has “worked flawlessly” and likely will serve as a model for future collaborations he believes are sure to follow.

Vaslo also hit some positive notes for the city’s future, citing the opening of several new businesses, led by the acquisition of the Lincoln Park Shopping Center by Grand Sakwa Properties, which already is planning $10 million to $12 million in upgrades in what he described as a multijurisdictional project. Part of the center is in Allen Park, and he also thanked Wayne County officials for their efforts in coming up with a brownfield redevelopment plan for part of the site.

The mayor also used the March 3 address to call attention to a “mosaic of activity” by Lincoln Park Public Schools and the city’s civic groups.

He pointed to the refurbished observatory on the high school grounds that he called “truly remarkable” and is home to an amateur astronomy club.

Vaslo cited the recently completed Lions Park near Emmons and River Drive, built specifically for handicapped children, as a “very real example of public-private partnership.”

He also mentioned that the Lincoln Park Exchange Club, which has placed over 20 freedom shrines throughout the city, was chartered in 1925, the same year as the national organization was established.

“Their history is our history,” Vaslo said.

Over the last few years, he said, the State of the City address has come to serve as a fundraiser for the Lincoln Park Rotary Club for things like the Lincoln Park Sports Hall of Fame, family fun night at Lincoln Park High School, educational scholarships for children and Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio around the world.

This year’s mayoral address was the first to feature corporate sponsors, Vaslo said, including Waste Management, Grand Sakwa Properties, Hennessey Engineers, RJ & J Enterprises and Trinity Transportation.