By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – Expectations for a post-emergency management city with services and property values regaining peak levels remain optimistic in spite of voter rejection of a tax levy to shore up pension funds. Complete recovery will just take longer than hoped.
“I’m disappointed but cautiously optimistic,” Mayor Thomas Karnes said. “We will keep improving, but it will be baby steps based on how much money we have coming in.”
A proposed millage to secure long-term retirement obligations was narrowly defeated during Tuesday’s general election 1,709 to 1,507.
Karnes said both the outcome and voter participation fell short of what he’d hoped: Tuesday’s single-issue ballot drew 13 percent voter participation, with 3,223 ballots cast from the nearly 25,000 registered voters.
“The turnout was disappointing,” Karnes said.
In spite of an aggressive awareness effort by city officials, opponents of that – and other – tax questions launched counter campaigns, and Karnes wondered if the message had been lost.
“It wasn’t about paying for pensions or not,” Karnes said. “It was to move the pension payments and free up general funds.”
Tuesday’s balloting marked the second rejection this year for proposals to boost pension and retirement benefit funding, a long-underfunded budget that factored heavily in the city’s amassing a $5 million debt and falling, last year, into state-mandated emergency management.
Tuesday’s defeated proposal sought a levy of up to 6 mills that would have cost the average homeowner about $180 annually. The anticipated $3 million revenue for public safety retirement and benefit funds would have allowed – by freeing up general fund monies – the city to begin restoring services and positions, particularly within public safety departments.
The city has 83 full-time employees, compared to 148 in 2009 when property values were at optimum levels.
Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said that it’s unlikely the city will attempt a similar millage request in 2016, although a scaled-down version may be considered, as might a Headlee Amendment override to generate an additional mill which would add about $500,000 to the working budget.
“Twice is enough,” Coulter said. “We’re not planning on trying again.”
Coulter remains scheduled to end his tenure with the city at the end of January, and said sufficient progress has been made for the city to transition back to local authority at the end of the state’s five-year oversight.
“The good news is that the city has a balanced budget, and is headed toward a positive fund balance,” Coulter said. “It’s going to be tight, and we’re not going to be able to provide the level of service people want, but things have turned around and we’re moving forward.”
Karnes said the city council is expected to regain authority over finances during a transition period that will begin in 2016. Coulter will likely remain on an advisory committee, and it remains to be determined if recently appointed City Manager Matthew Coppler will be given some of the authority that had been provided the emergency manager.
Karnes said those discussions will begin in the next few weeks.
In spite of Tuesday’s election outcome, Karnes agreed that the momentum has turned.
“Property values are on the way up, and we’re making advancements,” Karnes said. “Just not as fast as we’d like.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.)