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Fixing finances, open mayoral seat top Fraser’s to-do list

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published January 9, 2018

FRASER — City Councilwoman Kathy Blanke, currently acting as Fraser’s mayor pro tem, bluntly described the implications of years of financial mismanagement: “We are in a train wreck like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Blanke, who was chosen to lead to the council, replacing former Mayor Joe Nichols, said the current six-member body is already looking at other logistical cuts following extreme measures to keep the city running — such as laying off public safety officers, reducing City Hall hours and eliminating recreation programs.

The Public Act 33 proposal failed in November, for the second time in two years. It would have resulted in an extra 3 mills for the city after the council successfully approved 2 mills last summer. Now Blanke has essentially guaranteed that an “equitable” millage increase will occur sometime this year.

“In life, you make choices, and we have a choice to salvage this city,” Blanke said. “We have to cut and are pretty much bare-boned. … We’re going to have to do what we need to do to save the town. We can’t keep going from one budget to the next like this.”

She added that residents, if they had voted for PA 33, would have received a better bargain. Now, nobody will be exempt from paying even higher taxes — even those on council who make the decisions.

“I’m quite sure it’s going to be above 3 mills,” she said. “We have too much at stake. We have home values at stake, public safety. We have a reputation at stake.”

She added that “the majority of council” is supportive and confident in the abilities of City Manager Wayne O’Neal and Finance Director Tim Sadowski, saying that both have the tools to take the city out of its financial funk.

Councilwoman Yvette Foster wants to look beyond a temporary fix, saying she wants O’Neal to act “with urgency” and provide the council with a 5- to 10-year plan that will make council members realize the long-term consequences of their votes.

“We need to start to look at all options to reduce our spending while still providing outstanding core services,” Foster said. “The residents do not have an appetite to raise taxes 5 to 10 mills, in which is needed to fully fund our liabilities. Let’s look for ways to save money, like contracting nonessential services such as I.T. and contracting lawn cutting at our parks.

“We have to look at all options because at the end of the day, we have to have the residents’ best interest at heart.”

Councilman Michael Lesich said the most urgent matter is ending the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, by breaking even. The second biggest priority is “establishing a budget for next year we can live with, that provides a list of services people want and want to pay for.”

He said he could see the council enacting a certain number of mills again if needed. The city is currently between a rock and a hard place, he stated, with the council having to find new ways to balance the budget without new revenue.

“I thought council did a pretty tough job and did it professionally,” he said. “I wish there were better options, and I continue to look for them. I don’t believe we’ve had the last discussion.”

As for the future of the mayoral seat, there remains more questions than answers.

Lesich said he is waiting on decisions from the court system in relation to appeals made by Nichols, as well as Macomb County verifying whether residents’ recall votes of Nichols are valid.

Blanke said she hoped and is still hoping that former two-term Councilman Mike Carnagie would step into the role, though in the past, he brushed off prospects of taking over for Nichols on a permanent basis.

“We, as anyone else, realize it’s important to have a seventh person,” Blanke said. “And we are working on it. The obvious fix would have been for Carnagie to stay on there for as long as possible.”

The 2018 agenda started during the holidays, she added, with council members and departments brainstorming in an effort to alleviate a dozen future budgetary meetings and a last-minute vote in April or May.

“You don’t see the true picture of Fraser in the council, of whom I’m a part of,” Blanke said. “They’re in the bleachers, in the residents. They’re the ones who molded this town.”