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Hazel Park, Madison Heights

January 25, 2013

City managers weigh in on upcoming challenges

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — A month into the new year, city managers are sizing up the challenges to come in 2013, while reflecting on the highlights of 2012.

For Jon Austin, city manager of Madison Heights, one pressing issue is something he hasn’t had to deal with in years past: preparing the city for his successor March 1.

Austin will retire at the end of February, having served the community for 21 years — the longest tenure of any city manager in the history of Madison Heights. City Council chose Benjamin Myers, the current deputy city manager, as his replacement.

Myers has 25 years of experience in municipal management, including 20 years of service in Madison Heights. Among his most important duties has been running the Department of Public Services.

As such, “We need to commence in the recruitment and selection of the replacement for Mr. Myers because, without him, we don’t have anyone to head up DPS, our largest department in terms of the variety of services,” Austin said. “That’s very important for the city to move in an expedited fashion to bring someone onboard to head up DPS.”

There is also the question of Myers’ new employment agreement as city manager, which at press time had not yet been finalized.

“Getting that resolved and approved is very important,” Austin said.

There will be a number of road reconstruction projects this year, including an asphalt overlay between 11 Mile and Dartmouth, north of 12 Mile; the costs will be split between federal funds ($855,000) and city funds (a projected $940,000). The contracted work is expected to be nearly $1.6 million, while the engineering, fees, signals and testing will cost another $200,000, for an overall price tag of nearly $1.8 million. The opportunity came up to do the project two years early, when funding for other communities fell through.

Another overlay project will be on 12 Mile from Campbell to Dequindre, handled by the Oakland County Roads Commission, funded 100 percent by outside sources.

“Both of those projects will take place this summer, hopefully not at the same time,” Austin said. “You will see a substantial upgrade to both of those roads.”

One of the most pressing challenges, Austin said, are negotiations for labor contracts, all eight of which will expire on June 30.   

“There has been a lot of change in state statutes regarding labor contracts, with Right to Work legislation passed in November, and a year ago, specialized legislation passed in regards to health care and who pays for health care, which will now be implemented in terms of premium sharing options,” Austin said.

“We’re unfortunately not in a position to be able to restore things cut in the past, so we’ll need to likely look at more concessions from those groups going forward,” he said, noting wages, benefits and working conditions are all up for discussion. “Achieving some savings through the new agreements will have to be part of our solution for balancing our budget for next year. That will be a lot to accomplish in little more than five months.”

That being said, the city’s situation has improved to the point where last year, they were able to start hiring public safety employees again: three firefighters and three police. For more than seven years, the city hadn’t been able to fill vacancies, and had been eliminating positions as they turned vacant.

Securing the future of the renamed Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods was another cause for celebration. The negotiation for the new 25-year lease agreement with Oakland County Parks will guarantee the nature center remains open, and funding will be available for programming, operations, grounds maintenance, facility renovations and improvements in the future. 

“It was by far and away the largest accomplishment for last year,” Austin said.

Coming up in Hazel Park
For Ed Klobucher, city manager of Hazel Park, “2012 was the most boring year I’ve seen as a city manager — but that’s a good thing.”

Recycling habits were improved among residents and businesses, thanks to a friendly competition between Hazel Park and Huntington Woods to see who could increase their recycling rates the most during the month of May. Hazel Park won with an 11 percent increase in May 2011, while Huntington Woods saw just a 1 percent increase.

Recycling saves on trash collection costs and earns money in rebates through the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority (SOCRRA). Huntington Woods has been at the top of the SOCRRA communities when it comes to recycling, and Hazel Park at the bottom, but the contest worked as planned. 

The city had its first Art Fair and Harvest Festival, which were so successful that the city is now thinking about splitting them into two separate events. Klobucher praised artist Julie Fournier for her work on the Art Fair.

Hazel Park also secured a grant for the upfront cost of acquiring new high-efficiency LED lights on John R, working with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office to secure them.

Yet the improved environmental stewardship and expanded quality-of-life offerings doesn’t change the tough financial reality Hazel Park and many other fully developed Detroit suburbs find themselves in, Klobucher said.

“Hazel Park continues to face ongoing fiscal challenges, primarily due to the state of Michigan’s broken system of municipal finance,” Klobucher said, speaking to the restrictive property-tax system that results from the combination of Proposal A and the 1978 Headlee Amendment, as well as the state’s replacement of statutory revenue sharing with the more limited Economic Vitality Incentive Program, among other things.

“We’ve got many positives, but our biggest challenge is related to state finance and the fallout from the foreclosure crisis, which continues to impact inner-ring communities with falling property values,” Klobucher said.

Labor union negotiations are ongoing, and Klobucher said he’s going to try to wring one last round of savings out of them. He knows they’ve already sacrificed a great deal; all unions accepted a 5 percent pay cut in years past, and, last year, the patrol officers accepted another 2.5 percent pay cut on top of that.

“All bargaining units have made sacrifices repeatedly over the past decade,” Klobucher said. “We want it to still be worthwhile to come to work; we want to retain employees, and retention is a struggle, in all of our departments. So like I said, this is about it regarding what we’ll be able to cut. We’ve led the way, across the state, in terms of the amount of sacrifices our employees have made. This isn’t anything new.”

Hazel Park will now supplement its full-time police officers with part-time officers. The department already makes extensive use of volunteer auxiliary policemen, and now part-timers will serve to further control costs.

Klobucher said he’s thankful for the extensive involvement of volunteers at many levels of the city, including the city’s paid staff, who often contribute time for free to help pull off cherished city events.

“Without the incredible level of volunteer involvement, we wouldn’t be able to do many of these things,” Klobucher said. “We really have great residents who volunteer their time to make sure Hazel Park is a great place to live.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.