Voters raise taxes to save cities

By DANIEL HERATY
Times-Herald Newspapers

Residents of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights elected new city and school officials and passed measures allowing for temporary tax increases in an attempt to eliminate general fund deficits.

In Dearborn, residents approved a five-year operating millage (7,420 votes, or 60 percent to 4,860, or 40 percent), raising property taxes up to 3.5 mills and generating about $12.25 million in general fund revenue in an attempt to offset a $20 million general fund deficit for the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year.

Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said he was pleased with the outcome of the millage proposal, adding that the extra funds mean less severe and widespread cuts to city services over the next five years. According to published reports, preliminary budget projections prior to the mill proposal included steep concessions from city employees and closing many outdoor pools and libraries by 2013.

The library’s Snow Branch closed in August.

“We’re still going to make the same changes,” he said. “But the cuts will be made strategically.” He did not specify the changes, but said the next step is to start working on the budget for 2012 to 2013, increasing property values and decreasing spending.

Voters also approved a one-mill increase to help fund the city’s libraries. O’Reilly said the mill raise provides a base operating rate of about $3.5 million for the library system, ensuring its continuation. In a narrow 51-percent to 48-percent margin, voters also decided against eliminating the city’s civil service system, which would have created a Human Resources Commission to oversee employment issues. O’Reilly declined to comment, saying he did not create that proposal.

In Dearborn Heights, voters approved an override of the 1979 Headlee Amendment (4,953 votes, 58 percent to 3,608 votes, 42 percent), which limits the amount of revenue collected in each fiscal year and prevents lowering state spending for local governments set in fiscal year 1978 to 1979.

The override allows for a three-mill property tax increase, generating an additional $3.4 million for general fund operations, sanitation and the Police and Fire Departments.

Mayor Daniel Paletko said he was pleased to see residents show their support for the override, but $2 million still needs to be cut from the general fund. He said 10-percent pay reductions for city employees are among the measures taken to reduce the deficit.

“What we’re doing is going to suppliers and looking at ways to get more efficient,” he said. “We feel we have a very good model of what’s going to happen in the city in the next few years.” At the same time, however, the funds don’t solve all the cities’ issues.

“It’s not going to be like business as usual,” he said. “There just isn’t that kind of money. We can’t spend money we don’t have.”

He said the next step for the city is to make it through the current fiscal year. In the next fiscal year, officials expect to handle the decrease in home values with the influx of money from the mill increase.

Paletko also said City Hall will remain closed on Fridays. City officials announced Friday closings of all non-emergency buildings in September.

“Wether we’ll be open on Friday or not, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I do not see (Friday closings) changing.”

Voters also re-elected City Clerk Walter Prusiewicz (4,674 votes) to finish the term of retired clerk Judy Dudzinski, who left in March. He said it was rewarding to have the confidence of the residents in his first run at public office and added the real work begins now. City Councilor Janet Badalow (3,337 votes) came in second.

“I hope that all of us as elected officials roll up our sleeves and get the city back in good shape,” he said.

Voters also chose to keep current City Councilors Kenneth Baron (5,812 votes) and Ned Apigian (3,638) and elected a newcomer, Lisa Hicks-Clayton (4,244 votes). She said she was already preparing to take office.

“I’m thrilled,” Clayton said. “I’m very excited and I’m ready to step up to the challenge and move forward past the financial crisis.”

Including the budget issues, she said making sure property values stabilize remain a high priority. She said elected officials need to be sure money from the Headlee override is spent wisely.

“We can’t be comfortable with what we have,” she said. “I want to see us try and maintain as many services as we can.”

Candidates Scott Craig (3,520 votes) and Kathleen Abdel-Hak (2,810 votes) lost the election.

In the Dearborn Heights School District No. 7 School Board election, Robert J. Brown (907 votes) and Vicki Bracken (806 votes) were elected to six-year terms. Unsuccessful candidates Velma Truitt (760 votes) and Catherine Bunker (686 votes) rounded out the candidates.

(Daniel Heraty can be reached at dheraty@bewickpublications.com.)