By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – The last time elected officials considered bringing in a full-time, professional city manager, the process was halted as the city’s financial standing had been declared to be distressed enough that, in July 2014, Emergency Manager Brad Coulter was appointed by the state to right the economic ship.
What a difference nine months makes, and Coulter said last week he expects to renew interviews to find a city manager to take over the reins after the city regains financial footing.
“We want to have a six-month transition,” Coulter said of an anticipated June appointment, allowing the next city manager half a year to become familiar with elected officials and the city budget. By early next year, Coulter said, “They can start picking up some of the normal operations.”
Coulter said adjustments have been made to bring the city out of what had become an estimated $5 million deficit. Prominent among the changes was a restructured pension and health-care plan for retirees, which replaced health care coverage to a partially-subsidized group plan, which in turn allowed a continuation of a pension system that had been dramatically underfunded. Coulter said the change goes into effect July 1, and is designed to restore the plan’s funding to non-critical levels. The plan had only been 22 percent funded, he said, and had been a major factor in the city reaching financial emergency levels.
Another piece of the puzzle remains to be determined Tuesday, when voters weigh in on a state road-funding tax while also answering two ballot questions on whether to approve a Public Act 345 millage to fund police and fire retirement systems.
“It’s a game changer,” Coulter said. If approved the 6-mill levy would raise an estimated $3 million next year, and would in turn leave available general funds to staff and equip public safety departments.
“We could hire police and buy equipment instead of using band-aids,” Coulter said.
Overall Coulter said the debt-elimination and progress toward his departure as emergency manager remains on schedule. He hopes to have a city manager identified and working by July, and he and city council will continue filling vacancies such as the current openings on the planning commission.
“The city manager needs to be partners with city council,” Coulter said. “It’s going to be a challenge for whoever comes in.”
Once stabilized, Coulter said the city’s priority will be to bring business investment and residential interest to the city.
“The one thing the council may take up is how to promote Lincoln Park and Downriver,” Coulter said. Recent projects and plans such as the Lincoln Park Lofts and plans for a Sav-A-Lot store represent millions of dollars invested along Fort Street.
(James Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.)