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Grosse Pointe City

March 13, 2013

City emergency dispatch could be on chopping block

City leaders likely to discuss options at meeting March 18

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

GROSSE POINTE CITY — Another year of belt-tightening in the City has placed the elimination of emergency dispatch front and center for officials.

Although officials have considered contracting with a neighbor to provide the Public Safety Department service, the change has been in limbo for the last couple of years, as leaders have explored possible consolidation of all Grosse Pointe dispatches into one, and a potential merger of the City’s Public Safety Department with that of Grosse Pointe Park.

As early as the City Council’s next meeting March 18, City Manager Pete Dame said they could have results of a study into the Park-City public safety merger. Last July, the council approved hiring the Washington, D.C.-based International City/County Management Association Center for Public Safety to perform the study. During a Feb. 25 City Council meeting, Dame said consolidating dispatch alone with the Park is projected to save the City about $100,000 per year, albeit only $30,000 in the first year. Merging the two public safety departments was initially projected to save about $200,000-$600,000 annually, Dame said.

As administrators work on the budget for the coming 2013-14 fiscal year, Dame said they’re looking at a shortfall of about $100,000, with a $600,000 shortfall looming for 2014-15. For the second straight year, Dame said almost all of the shortfall could be attributed to increased City contributions toward the retiree health care and pension programs. Retirees, whose health care benefits were reduced last year to be in line with current employees, argue that the City didn’t have to contribute to the pension or retiree health care program for years.

In any case, despite an anticipated 2.4 percent increase in residential property tax revenue, “There’s a serious financial mismatch between budgeted revenues and expenditures,” Dame told the council.

City Council member John Stempfle called for dispatch to be on the agenda — and possibly on the chopping block — at this month’s meeting.

“We can’t just keep talking about it — we’ve got to start moving,” he said. “Dispatch (consolidation) — we should be going forward with dispatch. That’s a no-brainer.”

To save money, Grosse Pointe Shores merged its emergency dispatch with that of Grosse Pointe Farms in 2011, but it’s been a rocky road ever since, and some residents are now asking Shores officials to bring dispatching back in-house. Shores Public Safety Director John Schulte said he’s studying all of the city’s options and was slated to report his findings back to the council this month.

Officials have several options before them that could potentially yield savings. These include switching to a defined retiree contribution program — similar to a 401(k) — for any new employees, although Dame said an actuarial study would be required first. The City could change its residential or commercial trash pickup, eliminating backyard collection for residents and collecting commercial waste — possibly with an outside contractor — less frequently. Reducing brush collection to once per month instead of once per week is another option for residents, as is limiting the amount of trash that would be picked up without a fee, Dame said. He said trash collection changes could save the City about $25,000-$50,000 per year, depending on what — if any — changes leaders elect. Dame warned that any change in rubbish collection “is going to be a big change,” however.

Until four years ago, Dame said the City wasn’t paying into the retiree health care account and they had a savings there, but now they’ve had to make up the cost of that program by taking money out of the general fund. One accounting maneuver the City could explore would be tracing back to the enterprise funds employees were initially paid out of — such as the marina or solid waste funds — and assigning some health care or pension funds proportionately out of those funds, Dame said.

“From an accounting standpoint, it’s a more accurate way of assigning liability,” he said.

It could also relieve some burden off of the general fund and shift it onto another fund, one that might be better equipped to handle the costs. Dame calculated a potential savings of $45,000 from the general fund by making this change with regard to pension contributions.

State law says that municipalities can recover public relations costs up to $50,000, so Dame said they could impose a public relations levy, which could bring in about $30,000 toward the cost of newsletters, website maintenance and related expenses.

Another way to raise a bit of revenue would be to impose a 1 percent administration fee on all summer taxes. Dame said that fee is only imposed on a portion of summer taxes and all of the winter taxes now. That would give officials another $45,000 to work with, he said.

City leaders could consider asking voters to approve a Headlee override in order to enable the City to raise its millage rate, which is currently at its cap. Dame said a 1 mill levy could net the City another $300,000 annually. The City has been at its cap for the last two years, he said.

City Council member Christopher Boettcher said a tax increase might be warranted now, after years of cutbacks and wage freezes for employees. He suggested looking into a short-term millage increase.

“Not only does it affect the employees that work for us, it affects the residents,” he said of additional proposed cuts. “We really have to look at what would be a tax levy that would put us … over this hump. … We need to take this to the people.”

City Council member Jean Weipert agreed, but said they needed “hard numbers” first.

With regard to possible changes in public safety, “We have to make sure we’re making the right decisions for the community,” she said.

For the last four years, Dame said every department has trimmed its budget. The only way to balance the coming structural deficit is to raise revenues, share delivery of some services or change the level of some services, he said.

“Any extras that ever existed have already been eliminated,” Dame said. “There isn’t an escape from the fact that retiree costs will exceed 10 percent of our general budget.”

That was a concern for Stempfle.

“We’ve cut so much over the last few years, I think we’re losing the character (of the City),” he said. “I hate to admit it, but I would certainly consider a tax levy.”

However, others, including City Council member Christopher Walsh, weren’t ready for a Headlee override proposal yet. And City Council member Andrew Turnbull was worried that any tax increase would simply be used up to cover existing obligations, not for new or current services.

“We need to see as big a picture as we can,” Mayor Dale Scrace said. “Somewhere in that is the potential for a tax increase.”

How leaders will handle the challenges will be determined in the weeks and months to come.

“We’ve cut so much of our basic services (already). … We’ve got some big, tough issues to confront as a council,” Turnbull said. “There’s no way we can continue (as we are now).”

Dame said the council would formally be presented with a proposed 2013-14 budget in April, and the council would be approving a final budget in May.

The next City Council meeting is slated to take place at 7 p.m. March 18 at City Council chambers, adjacent to the Public Safety Department. For an agenda or more information, visit www.grossepointecity.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.