Pensions, fire top areas of expected changes for city

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – Anticipated changes to some of the city’s basic operations will take time, Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said, both to take care of residents and employees and to follow a state-mandated process.

“They won’t happen overnight,” Coulter said, a message he relayed during a public informational meeting last month. “There’s a process to follow.”

Prior to last month’s presentation, Coulter sent a report to the state which outlined options for eliminating a budget deficit that rose as high as $5 million before Gov. Rick Snyder declared the city and its finances an emergency and, in July, appointed Coulter to an anticipated 18-month tenure.

Coulter’s authority over final decisions, he said, will still require city council’s consent before some restructurings are finalized. With pension plans for retired city employees – one of the two principal budget areas likely to be restructured along with the fire department – meetings will continue with health care consultants and actuaries to draft a proposal for balancing the books.

“Any changes will need city council approval,” Coulter said. Should elected officials reject a revised pension plan, the panel would need to submit an alternate plan or accept a state ruling.

“Right now there’s a significant amount of more money that’s needed,” Coulter said. “This has been building for 10 years of being underfunded. I don’t think the retirees knew had bad a shape their pension system was in.”

Coulter said he expects to have a proposal for addressing the pension funding within two months, and hopes to satisfy as many retirees as possible, knowing that the transition will be difficult for many.

Also prominent in expected changes could be a restructured fire department. Coulter had proposed variations of the current department that included sharing resources with neighboring communities, cross-training firefighters as paramedics, or staff adjustments making use of volunteers and paid on-call firefighters.

Coulter said that options are being considered that will likely be implemented in 2015.

“We have to be careful on how we move on fire,” Coulter said.

While residents have long understood the critical state of municipal finances, last month’s meeting confirmed for Coulter that the taxpayers have priorities of their own.

“The thing that’s loud and clear is that they want the city safe, and they wanted it maintained,” Coulter said. “We need to make sure there’s enough in the budget to get that done. The changes that are left to make will have significant long-term affect, and you don’t do that without a lot of thought.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)