City Council is about to consider a resolution that would place a 2.5 mil tax increase for public safety and local road improvements on this November’s ballot.
Predictably, the howling by those in the anti-tax corners of the city has already begun, yet those folks are doing both themselves and their fellow residents a disservice. By opposing this measure, we would not be giving the public the opportunity to decide for itself whether or not the continuation of the status quo with regard to public safety is worth paying on average $150 more per year in property taxes.
I first became aware of city politics several years ago when I discovered the city was proposing to levy a 1.9 mil tax increase in 2010. I was strongly opposed to the increase; the economic situation in Michigan was dire, and the circumstances the city was in at the time did not justify the tax increase in my opinion.
Since the tax increase went through, I have followed the city’s progress as it has attempted to cut costs and live within its means. Although our city employees have taken a significant reduction in pay, benefits, and pension, the quality of service has remained roughly the same. Some of the most egregious abuses, such as the DROP program, have been eliminated. However, the condition of the city’s roads and the municipal vehicle fleet are deteriorating. Most of the computers you will see on desks at City Hall are antiquated. The equipment in some of the departments, such as the Community Relations Department, is in a shocking state of disrepair. We have seen personnel reductions in both the police and fire departments, and services that once used to be free to all residents, such as chipping up trimmed tree branches for disposal by the DPW, have begun to cost extra for those residents that use them. Gone now is the free rock salt that once used to be distributed to residents for use on sidewalks and driveways in the wintertime. And in case you haven’t noticed, when it snows heavily, the process of clearing the roads takes longer and starts later than it once did.
The simple fact of the matter is that the city’s revenues have plummeted, and the increase in home taxable values back to their pre-crash levels may take decades, and under Proposal A will be capped at 2% per annum. A soft real estate market will continue to mean slow improvement in the city’s tax revenue. Meanwhile, the level of service we receive from our city government is declining, and could decline a lot more.
I am not happy about the prospect of a tax increase. Along with everyone else, my expenses have continued to go up with inflation without a corresponding increase in my income. The difference this time, though, is that the residents are going to get to vote on what happens next: we will decide collectively whether or not we are willing to pay more to maintain our city government. Another important difference this time is that I have seen genuine sacrifice on the part of the city employees, reductions of waste, and significant effort made towards reducing legacy costs. Have those reductions gone as far as they possibly could? It is difficult to say, but the fact that they have happened and are significant is indisputable.
The idea of putting it to a vote of the public strikes me as eminently fair: one of the chief objections to the 1.9 mil increase was that the residents didn’t get to vote on the matter. Now we will have that opportunity, and the city will have to make its case for the increased revenue to all of us, rather than the 7 people who sit behind the head table at City Council meetings.
Ultimately, I am a believer in the democratic process, and I think the public will choose what is best for themselves and the city. You will note that the people who will be voting on this tomorrow night are putting their political careers on the line: this is an election year for them, too. Something tells me that they wouldn’t vote to put a major tax measure on the ballot during a re-election campaign unless it was necessary.
For this reason, I support the process the city will go through to bring this measure to the ballot next November. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out, and I will be following it very closely.
As usual, feel free to leave a comment below.
A Freedom of Information Act request has netted a copy of the Police report from the Paul Smith vs. Construction Equipment Operator altercation this past Tuesday.
To set the record straight, the Police did their job thoroughly: they arrived on the scene, listened to the complaint, verified the legality of operating the piece of equipment on the road, made sure it was properly signed and lighted, then advised Mr. Smith and the equipment operator of their findings. The entire process was then thoroughly documented in the report you see above.
By my count, there were five police officers involved in this altercation: two patrol officers,a Police Sergeant, and a Police Lieutenant were at the scene, as well as an additional officer from the Traffic Safety Bureau who was contacted by telephone to answer a question on the matter of the law involved. In addition, there was a City of Sterling Heights engineering employee already at the scene before the altercation began who was there to make sure everything was being done properly.
Add in two 911 emergency operators heard on the call, and we’re up to (at least) eight total city employees involved in a needless altercation, some for an hour or more.
I’m not even going to take a serious stab at an estimate of what this all wound up costing the taxpayers. There were 4 police vehicles summoned to the scene, one city engineering vehicle at the scene, plus at least 8 hours of labor time involved. Suffice it to say that the dollar amount is well into the hundreds when it is all accounted for.
Then, after all this time, effort and money was expended thoroughly investigating the situation, Councilman Smith then stormed off the scene, stating “I guess you are going to let them get away with murder!”
Mr Smith campaigned in no small part by promising to help eliminate government waste. Don’t you think he should stop creating more expenses by having the city settle his petty disputes!?
I think the one who’s getting away with murder is Councilman Paul Smith.
As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.
Last evening I was able to rearrange my schedule and attend the city council meeting so I could ask Mr. Smith about his 911 call earlier in the day. The discussion this provoked gave me new insight into Mr. Smith’s behavior.
Quite honestly, in yesterday’s brief blog post I was a bit at a loss for what to say or think about Mr. Smith’s behavior. It’s not that it was unusual for him (it isn’t) nor unexpected (hardly) for him to attempt to use his position on council to improperly influence those around him. He has a long record of doing so, and indeed the rules of council have been modified in response to his earlier antics.
The thing that was so strange to me was that yesterday showed us a Paul Smith acting completely irrationally: screaming at somebody that he was on city council on a 911 call, and placing his very life at risk by blocking a piece of construction equipment with his body. What I know of Mr. Smith from past experience with the man is that he is eccentric, but usually rational. His methods, while often insulting and usually ill-advised, are usually those of someone who is at least capable of putting some thought into what he is doing. For me, anyway, yesterday’s behavior was something else entirely: the ravings of a man who might not be in full possession of his faculties.
At any rate, the more I observe Mr. Smith, the more I have come to realize that at least part of the problem is that he has no respect for the office he holds; he wants the title of ‘City Councilman’ for what it can do for him, not what he can use it to do for this city. He appears genuinely disinterested in the mechanics of city governance, for example, but more than willing to use his position to help advance his views on the national political scene.
Below I’ve compiled a 15-minute video of the discussion from last evening’s City Council meeting that concerned Mr. Smith’s latest poor behavior. I’m the guy who appears first in the orange shirt, in case you didn’t know. As always, send me your comments using the form below.
Update: HuffPost Detroit has picked up on the story.
I received a copy of some shocking audio this morning from a series of 911 phone calls placed by Sterling Heights Councilman Paul Smith.
Apparently, Mr. Smith became upset by someone from a construction crew operating near his neighborhood driving their front-end loader up and down the street adjacent to his. By his own words, he stopped the construction vehicle by stepping in front of it and ordering it to stop, citing the fact that he is a member of City Council.
I have written at length about Mr. Smith’s antics and his inflated sense of importance, but I can’t top this. He blocked a 10,000 pound machine with his chest and yelled that he was on City Council.
Listen to the audio for yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments below.
Today, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was found guilty after 14 days of jury deliberations on the testimony during his Federal RICO Act trial. Facing up to 20 years in prison, Mr. Kilpatrick will now pay for his crimes against the public trust, having illegally diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to himself and his family. We in Sterling Heights should take note: what happens in the anchor city of our region directly impacts us.
First and foremost, congratulations should go to the Federal Prosecutors for their achievement. Although the Federal Government frequently deserves the bad reputation it has, obviously they have succeeded in bringing Mr. Kilpatrick to justice.
What is even more noteworthy, however, is that the jury chose to side with the prosecution even in the face of Mr. Kilpatrick’s inarguable charisma and popularity with a substantial segment of Detroit’s electorate. Jury nullification is always a possibility in high profile cases, and it would not have been difficult to imagine it happening in this case. The fact that it didn’t indicates to me that there is likely a substantial portion of Detroit’s electorate that is on the side of law and order, that wants to hold its politicians accountable for their actions, and that looks beyond allegations of racial bias in determining the facts of a criminal prosecution. Hurray and bravo to those jury members for that: surely they will suffer more than their fair share of public disdain as a result of their courage.
Sterling Heights is, unfortunately, not a city that could exist without the infrastructure provided by the City of Detroit, at least without a massive investment which we could not afford to make. Our water and sewage treatment is dependent upon those respective departments in Detroit. Our road system and industrial base is an artifact of the economic engine Detroit formerly represented. Our health as a city is thus dependent upon the health of Detroit; without a vibrant core city, Sterling Heights will never be everything it could or should be. If you don’t think so, check your home’s valuation and compare it to what it was when Mr. Kilpatrick first took office. Our plummeting home valuations and corresponding loss of tax revenue is related to Detroit’s misfortune. It would be a stretch to say that Mr. Kilpatrick is entirely to blame, but that his criminal malfeasance contributed to the situation is to me, at least, without doubt.
Kwame Kilpatrick belongs in jail. Without his pending incarceration, the future of the rule of law in the City of Detroit would be uncertain. If the rule of law is uncertain, so too is the health of every city in the region. Today’s verdict portends hope for the city, and by extension, the future of Sterling Heights.
Today I posted a revised version of the Labor Contracts page. The updates are several:
- MAPG-Executive Collective Bargaining Agreement from 2012
- UAW Local 412, Unit 41 Supervisory Employees Collective Bargaining Agreement from 2012
- MOU for MAPG-Executive group from today, 05-FEB-2013
- MOU for UAW Local 412 Unit 41 Supervisory Employees from today.
Needless to say, I have fallen behind in updating the contracts available on this page, and this latest entry is part of an effort to catch up and get all of the contract information current again.
Today’s MOUs are interesting in that they resolve a few issues that the city has had:
- What to do about the recent appointment of Christopher Martin to the post of Fire Chief in light of the fact that he was already enrolled in the DROP program at the time he was hired.
- What to do about supervisory employee retirements in general as these high-value employees head for the exits (i.e. retirement) in order to lock in their retirement benefits, thus leaving a “brain drain” in operation at the very top.
The simple fact of the matter is that the city is very concerned about employee turn-over at the very top of its various departments. Several of the people managing various departments within the city are technically old enough to retire, yet are young enough to continue working for many years to come. They are incentivized to retire, however, due to shorter-term Collective Bargaining Agreements, a general reduction in the retirement benefits the city has been and will be making available in the future, and the ongoing elimination of the DROP programs from the CBAs.
To combat this, the city has decided it will rehire retired supervisory employees at a reduced rate of pay and with no benefits other than non-accruing vacation days. Of course, these employees don’t NEED other benefits, since they are already enjoying their retirement benefits, including retiree health care, a pension, etc.
Actually, this is not a new idea. Some time ago, the city decided it would hire retirees in as part-timers. The major change in today’s MOUs is that it is now deciding to hire in retirees on a full time basis.
In some respects, this is smart thinking on the part of the city: try to retain the leadership we currently have for as long as possible. It helps to ensure continuity of operations, and it puts people to work who would otherwise be retired, it helps to avoid elevating or hiring new people who might not work out in their new job, and it is generally a conservative approach to retain management when things seem to be going well.
On the other side of the coin, this doesn’t really eliminate employee incentives to retire. The result is that they are now given the incentive to retire, collect a full pension and retirement health care benefits and approximately 65-70% of their former wages doing the same job they were doing before. It’s an expensive way to keep people around, regardless of how much money the city claims it will be saving.
(Perhaps on paper, the city is saving money in this approach. Of course, “on paper” the DROP program was supposedly revenue-neutral “actuarially” and you’ll notice that it is now being, er, dropped with each new CBA.)
Would the city need to go through this exercise if it had a better “farm system” for bringing people up through the ranks and grooming them for departmental management positions?
Perhaps as time goes on, the elimination of the DROP program as CBAs are renewed will reduce the high “youthful retirement rate” the city is currently experiencing. Certainly we want to keep our newly appointed Fire Chief for as long as we are able: the revolving door in the Chief’s office needs to stop spinning.
Another interesting thing I find in the Memorandums of Understanding is the fact that the Union membership of rehired part-time employees is enshrined in the documents, even though these employees will not be technically subject to every provision in the CBAs they are party to, given that they’re already retired. I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind that, but I suspect it might have something to do with the ‘Right to Work’ laws about to take effect. I would appreciate your comments on that and other possibilities that simply aren’t coming to mind for me right now.
As always, my goal with the Labor Contracts page is to offer up a highly reliable source of information sans editorial comment (which I reserve for the main blog entries such as this one.) I would appreciate any heads up with regard to missing CBAs, MOUs or other documentation if you should happen to notice them missing.
Incidentally, I am still waiting to see the revised Police contract, post-P.A. 312 arbitration.
If, like me, you’re interested in the future direction of Sterling Heights, I suggest you respond to a city-wide survey being taken this month.
With the official tally set to take place on or after December 14, the survey is designed to get resident input on various city departments and services. This input will presumably be used to help set the city’s direction in the 2013/2014 budgetary process, and it will also be used as a justification to add a measure to the ballot to raise taxes to help finance the city’s public safety services.
Although the survey is being sent out via email and postal mail to what the city determines is a statistically significant sample of the residents, anyone can opt to take the survey by visiting the link below.
Other than showing up for City Council meetings and speaking your part, or contacting your representatives on council directly, this survey is one of the best ways to make your feelings known about the performance of departments within the city, and what their priorities should be. I strongly recommend you take this survey.
Up for discussion at the November 20, 2012 City Council meeting will be agenda item #4: Consider Approval of Agreement, Regional Emergency Dispatch Services. With very few, if any, drawbacks, this is an idea whose time has come.
Since this idea first surfaced months ago, I have been skeptical about the benefits that transitioning to a regional emergency dispatch would provide. Sure, the cost savings could be demonstrated on paper, but what would we lose in the process? Would city residents really be as well served by a dispatch center outside of the city limits as it currently is? And what would this mean for the people who are doing the job today? Would we be relegating them to the unemployment line?
All of these concerns are addressed by the proposed agreement with the county. At minimum, sixteen of the current city-employed dispatchers (just about all of them who aren’t planning to retire) will be rehired by the county to staff the new regional dispatch, and the agreement is that those folks will at first be assigned to working on Sterling Heights-related calls. Eventually, they will be cross-trained to handle calls for all participating communities. It’s hard to imagine that moving the current dispatchers and most of their equipment to a different building a few miles away will negatively impact service for residents.
In addition, the people working for the local dispatch center will see some new opportunities open up in their careers. The county provides more opportunities for advancement than the city does, simply because it governs a larger area. As the report by the fire and police chiefs notes, their fringe benefits would be better as well.
My conclusion is that this agreement is a win-win situation for both the county and the residents of Sterling Heights. City Council should approve this measure.
It took six days for the news to filter through all of the hullabaloo about President Obama’s re-election, but I am pleased to learn today of the successful recall of Troy Mayor Janice Daniels.
Ms. Daniels’ tenure as Troy’s Mayor serves as an object lesson in how one should not conduct themselves in local politics. Ms. Daniels, in allowing herself to be painted as using her position as a bully pulpit on social issues, outraged the socially liberal half of the public. Unfortunately this overshadowed some of her better-considered ideas, and it lost her the faith of a majority of the electorate. Note to Paul Smith: when confronted with an unfortunate statement from your past, it’s best for your political objectives to not double down and amplify it. Ms. Daniels, when given a choice between trying to be the mayor for all of Troy or just the mayor for the people who happen to agree with her social stance, chose poorly. She has now paid what is considered to be for a politician the ultimate price. Now she will no longer have the opportunity to advance her ideas because she couldn’t learn how to graciously accept–not condone, but simply accept– the views of people with whom she disagreed.
In the meantime, Daniels attempted to turn down federal grant money to upgrade the train station apparently based on a weird “principle” that federal spending is automatically wasteful and should be blocked in all cases. As a fiscal conservative, my view is that federal spending should be tightly controlled, and taxation should be as light as possible — minimal, actually — in order to foster the free market and provide maximum benefit to citizens. That is not to say, however, that if some of the of the federal government’s tax money were to find its way to a worthy project in Sterling Heights that I would be automatically opposed to it. Indeed, we do deserve to get something out of our hard-earned taxes, and each situation should be debated on its actual merits, not the political ideology of the debaters.
Here in Sterling Heights, our council and mayor are far from perfect, and I have frequently been willing to point out why this is so. However, I have to give them credit: their predominant focus seems to be on the job they were elected to do, which is to act as the people’s voice in the administration of the city. Even Paul Smith, as crazy as it might seem, is actually representing his weird little constituency with his wrong-headed approach in opposing tax abatements for local businesses. I hope council’s focus on the objective of running the city remains the case. Our local government does not need to become an echo chamber for pundits seeking to argue social issues.
In the meantime, traces of the Tea Party movement remain here in Sterling Heights. Yes, they have some of the right ideas, but they really should turn down the volume on the vitriol. Regardless of who you are or what your political ideology is, the focus should be on moving us all toward what everyone truly wants: a healthy city government with sustainable budgetary practices. Save the ideology for church.
Gary Lusk, last written about here during his campaign for Sterling Heights City Council in 2011, is running for Macomb County Commissioner in the 5th District. The current commissioner of that district has announced his retirement, and so Mr. Lusk is running to fill a seat that is about to be vacated.
Knowing Gary as I do from the previous election cycle, I feel I can recommend him for the post. Gary brings a good business sense to the table, but he also eschews partisan bickering in favor of working with people from both sides of the political divide. I think he would make an excellent choice for County Commissioner, and I hope that if you reside in the 5th District that you will consider giving him your vote.