By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – Although a transition period will soon mark the final phase of Emergency Manager Brad Coulter’s city hall supervision, Mayor Thomas Karnes said state oversight of the municipal budget will continue for the foreseeable future.
“We’ll be under the microscope for the next five years,” Karnes said. “Somebody will be watching the budget.”
Part of that oversight will be maintained by recently named City Manager Matt Coppler, who was offered the position in July by city council and is expected to assume office Oct. 1. Coppler is a veteran municipal manager currently serving as city manager of Fairfield, Conn.
The appointment marks the first full-time professional manager the city’s had since Joe Merucci held the post for about 12 months, a period that ended shortly before the city began a review of its budget deficit that resulted in Coulter’s appointment as emergency manager.
“We’d asked the state to look at the finances and all of this is the direct result,” Karnes said.
The appointment allows a three-month transition with Coppler in office before Coulter’s departure, during which time the city will again ask voters to approve a millage designed to ease public safety funding, including retirement obligations.
“That’s the key to the future,” Karnes said. “That frees up the general fund to hire people, do road work and manage our assets. Voters have to fund that.”
The city has attempted several times in recent years to gain taxpayer support for millage funding in its efforts to erase what had become a $5 million budget deficit, a shortfall that left the city in financial distress.
Ballot proposals in May were resoundingly rejected by voters who shot down a state sales tax proposal; the city’s Public Act 345 millage may have fallen victim to a Michigan proposal, and narrowly missed approval by about 300 votes.
Karnes said a revised version of the proposal – which could resolve what is arguably the last remaining problem of pension funding to solve before the city fully recovers – will be left up to voters in November.
“It would make things a whole lot easier,” Karnes said of the millage request, which would cost the average homeowner about $180 annually and raise about $3 million for public safety and city services. “It would put us in a position to start improving the city. We’re just trying now to pay the bills and keep the services we have.”
Karnes said progress has been made under Coulter’s management, and anticipates that as city manager Coppler will have similar authorities for as long as the city remains under state oversight.
“The council will start doing some things, but everything will have to be signed off on by the state. There have been some positive things done, and other things like retiree health care that still need to be done.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)