Town Hall: Part One
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If it were truly left up to the residents of Ypsilanti to get the City out of our current budget crunch, we’d certainly fail.
This evening saw the first of too many Town Hall meetings on City finances. Much to my surprise the cafeteria at Estabrook Elementary School was packed with people who wanted to know more, people who wanted to help, and people who wanted to take cheap shots at the usual suspects. Dr. Joe Ohren, professor of Political Science at Eastern Michigan University was the emcee. After a long rehashing of what the Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances did and the three options the City has, there was a Q&A session that consisted of pre-written questions. Two and half hours later, we were back where we started.
To be fair, the questions were for the most part unedited as witnessed by the evening’s first cheap shot — a blast at Ed Koryzno’s costly, new pension program that’s funded by the City to the tune of ten to fourteen grand a year. Mayor Farmer and Council Member Barry LaRue deftly sidestepped the question. Neither explained why he was rewarded with this extension prior to solving the City’s financial problems, nor did they explain why the City chose to enroll him in a pension program — an obsolete form of retirement long removed from Corporate America.
The next hour focused mostly on bizarre scenarios surrounding the Fire Department. Sadly, a lot of the questions were about things that have been discussed ad naseum. Yes, EMU and the State don’t foot their fair share of the fire services they use. Over the past twenty years or so they’ve stiffed the City to the tune of $8M. Yes, the Fire Department is at their minimum staffing levels required to offer the exemplary response times that they do (around two minutes and forty-five second per fire call). There were some goofy questions about what the Fire Department would do if two calls — one in Normal Park and one at EMU — came in simultaneously. Who would they save first? It was entertaining, but pointless and got us no closer to solvency.
There was similar discussion about the Police Department. No, the Police Department can’t issue more speeding tickets in hopes of raising revenue. No, the Police Department can’t cut staff more than they have over the past five years. The most interesting point made by Captain Matt Harshberger was the Police Department’s desire to expand their services to the surrounding townships with the hope of turning a profit. This seems plausible considering the price increases the County is looking to impose on the Sherrif services they provide to those communities. Even if they can increase revenue by “taking their show on the road” as Capt. Harshberger said, they won’t make up the budget shortfall.
The City pays Barr, Anhut & Associates $340K a year in legal fees (mostly to fight the few ordinance violations the City enforces). The City pays about $2M a year in benefits to current ($700K) and past ($1.3M) employees. The Fire Department ($2.3M) and the Police Department ($4M) account for 55% of the City’s total budget. The City Manager was constantly reading the budget to the crowd.
By the time it the floor was open for questions, people were disgruntled. One resident talked about getting rid of the Planning Department. Another resident shot back with how planning is important to her opening a business in Ypsi. She even took a cheap shot at the Federal goverment with an irrelevant comment about levees. A member of the America First party read a prepared statement about Rodney Nanney’s recent article for the Ypsilanti Courier. Lee Tooson and Tyrone Wilson were fired up about stuff too. Even with all the excitement no one came up with any good ideas.
The City supposedly has only three options:
- go into receivership and let someone from the State take over
- adopt a City income tax
- cut City services to the point of ruining our quality of life
That is a far too simplistic way of looking at things. BRCCF Chairman Paul Tait said that no one on the committee wanted an income tax, but he sure was selling it hard. The thing that frustrated me was that he divorced each option from one another. Ypsilanti needs to raise additional revenue, but it needs to substantially cut it’s expenses as well. Just because one idea (such as eliminating the AATA subsidy) only generates a $180K savings (and not the entire $2.5M shorfall) doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. If you’re going to ask citizens to cough up what is essentially one or two additional mortgage or rent payments, then the City needs to show everyone they can feel the pain too. Yes, the City did cut the Recreation Department two and a half years ago, but you can only ride that accomplishment for so long.
The thing that disappointed me most was that no mention was made with respect to building any synergies with other communities who are in the same boat as Ypsilanti. This is a State problem, not an Ypsilanti problem. Royal Oak, Mount Clemens, Ann Arbor, the list goes on, are all facing issues like Ypsilanti is. On August 2nd, the Mayor spoke of starting an email campaign or organizing a march on Lansing. It’s been six weeks. Where’s the update? We had the good fortune of having both Alma Wheeler Smith and Liz Brater at the meeting. Instead of complaining in a school cafeteria, we should have cornered the two of them and demanded they help us out. That’s why we elected them. They care to the point that Ypsilanti has the Democrat vote, but they don’t care about Ypsilanti enough to help. Where’s the accountabilty. I guess that’s what next Monday’s meeting is for.
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