Challenges, goals clear for city manager

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – City officials had much to celebrate last year, including the first positive fund balance in several years and the end of municipal authority under a state-appointed emergency manager.

It remains a cautious optimism, as City Manager Matt Coppler said after city council was recently given an audit report from Plante & Moran that outlined a long road ahead. A bare-bones budget remains to be managed, and officials may have to do so with less revenue in the coming year.

“In last year’s fiscal period we had some one-time revenue sources,” Coppler said. “For the year ahead we think there will be a positive gain, but there are things that are unknown.”

Coppler retains many of the authorities that had been given to Emergency Manager Brad Coulter, whose final orders in December included transferring city oversight to a state-appointed Receivership Transition Advisory Board. That panel will meet monthly and review city expenditures to ensure compliance with debt- and deficit-reduction strategies.

Coulter’s final orders included benchmarks that the city must meet before authority is restored to the elected city council.

That budget will struggle to meet the same income levels generated during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The audit presented to council highlighted several one-time only revenues that contributed to the city’s first positive fund balance since before its finances had been declared an emergency.

Coppler said sales of cell tower leases, a Downtown Development Authority sharing agreement and judgment levy were among $1.8 million in one-time only revenues.

Coppler said additional cell tower lease agreements may bring in revenue for this fiscal year, along with income from new businesses, housing rehabilitation projects and other sources. City council is expected this week to consider August ballot placement of a public safety renewal – a 3.459-mill levy that had first been approved in 2007 – in hopes of maintaining current funding levels for police and fire services.

The bottom line, however, remains uncertain. Employee and retiree pension funds remain underfunded – currently at less than 25 percent – and auditors said that savings realized by a restructured health care package won’t by themselves be enough to cover rising pension costs.

“We have to make greater inroads to get that resolved,” Coppler said. Negotiations – including court opinions – are expected to continue on what may be the key issue between the city’s current receivership and a return to autonomy.

“There are a lot of things we have to come to grips with in the next few years,” Coppler said. “This is a transition period and you have to treat it as such. If we do our job right in two years or so we’ll be back to a government that’s based on the rules and regulations in the city charter.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at james.a.mitchell37@gmail.com.)