Public safety levy critical to city’s stability

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – As the city prepares for its post-emergency management recovery, voter approval on Tuesday of a millage dedicated to police and fire retirements and benefits is one option for continued budget stability.

At the moment, Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said it may be the only available option.

During a series of town hall meetings, city officials have made available the facts and figures which reveal a strained municipal budget.

The city’s deficit had taken many years and several factors to develop before state oversight was ordered last year, not the least being the decline in property values that impacted many Downriver communities. Property values began declining in 2009, Coulter said, as much as a 34 percent reduction before leveling off.

“With that decline also comes a severe reduction in the city’s revenue,” Coulter said during resident forums and materials made available to voters. Property taxes account for a majority of the city’s income.

Services and staffing have been reduced in recent years, with 83 full-time employees compared to 148 on the payroll in 2009. Current employees and bargaining units have accepted salary reductions, and a revised health care plan for retirees was approved earlier this year.

Restoring positions remains a priority, particularly with police and fire – property values are based in part on staffing levels of public safety departments.

City officials have long recognized that current revenues are unable to keep pace with expenses, notably a long-underfunded public safety pension fund. A ballot question during the Nov. 3 general election, asks for public approval of a tax levy to fund police and fire retirements and benefit systems.

Approval would also make available general fund allocations to hire additional police officers and maintain fire staffing levels.
“Lincoln Park does not have a cost problem, it has a revenue problem,” Coulter said.

The proposal levy would not exceed 6 mills in any year, and would cost the average homeowner about $180 annually. If approved the levy would generate an additional $3 million per year for retirements.

Coulter and City Manager Brad Coppler – who assumed office last month and will continue reporting to state officials after Coulter’s anticipated January departure – told residents during town hall meetings last month that the foundation exists for a newly stabilized city. Current revenues, however, keep municipal resources at a bare minimum and would take up to 30 years to regain pre-2009 levels.

Information regarding the city’s budget, the proposed levy and current retirement and benefit plans are available at www.lincolnpark.govoffice.com.

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