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February 5, 2014

Finances, reduced crime highlight State of the City

By Kevin Bunch
C & G Staff Writer

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Finances, reduced crime highlight State of the City
Eastpointe Mayor Pro Tem Bill Sweeney gives a passionate State of the City address Jan. 28, declaring his love for Eastpointe and asking attendees not to give up on it.

EASTPOINTE — Officials were bullish on Eastpointe’s future during the State of the City address Jan. 28, but they were clear in their beliefs that the state needs to do more on the municipal, county and school levels to properly fund these entities.

County Executive Mark Hackel, state Rep. Sarah Roberts, East Detroit school board President Craig Wodecki, Judge Carl Gerds, City Manager Steve Duchane and Mayor Pro Tem Bill Sweeney all spoke for more than an hour combined.

A common theme was state funding, as well as the value of the community working together to help the city recover from the recession.

“I don’t care if you’ve been here 29 years or 29 days — if you’re a resident of this community, step up and make the best of it,” Sweeney said. “Look at the city of Eastpointe as hurting but not dead. We’re not in the ICU — we’re in recovery — and we need all of us to supply the oxygen and blood into the city, so at the next State of the City, you can hear about all the great things happening.”

Sweeney said the city has been working on enticing more businesses to Kelly Road — the “forgotten Main Street” of Eastpointe — and has been working on improving infrastructure above and below ground.

He said that early in his tenure as a councilman, the city had eight water main breaks in a single weekend, while in this year’s freezing weather, the city has seen a total of 20. Furthermore, he said the people making those repairs — as well as serving the community as police officers, firefighters and other positions — have taken cuts in pay and benefits to help keep the city going within its financial constraints.

Those constraints are not limited to the city of Eastpointe, according to other speakers. Duchane said communities across the state are all facing structural deficit problems due to the way Michigan lets them collect property taxes coupled with reductions in state-shared revenue. Under the current laws, even when property values increase, the amount of property taxes a community can collect will remain low, and grow slowly.

According to Duchane, he has been working on a state task force to come up with financing solutions on the state level for municipalities. He said that in the past decade, the state has reduced municipal funding by $6 billion and for education by $2 billion, leading to where things stand now. Eastpointe itself has seen state-shared revenue fall from $15 million to $8 million, which Duchane said accounts for 70 percent of the city’s “lifeblood.”

“No state can claim to be victorious and well when its major urban centers are described by the Wall Street Journal as apocalyptic to live in,” Duchane said. “I submit there is no competition between local governments and education. We are peasants in the courtyard fighting over the same scraps when it’s the bigger picture that’s our challenge. I don’t want a dollar on the floor we all fight over.”

Hackel said the county is facing a similar problem as Eastpointe, though it has more time for the state to get a handle on it. While the county is in good financial shape now, he said the 10-year forecast does not bode well without changes, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, like roads.

He said while the county is able to plow, salt and fill potholes where it needs to, road repairs will be limited unless the state can set up a new way to fund it.

“Until we get serious and get the Legislature to get a funding mechanism and quit kicking the can down the road — there has to be a way to solve the problem of funding roads so that, when you leave your home, you can be on something safe,” Hackel said.

Sen. Roberts said the estimated $970 million budget surplus would not be very helpful for roads, or other funding mechanisms, for the long- term, as two-thirds of it is a one-time boon. The surplus is also not coming in at one time, but rather is estimated over a three-year period, she said.

Additionally, about $265 million can be used only for education purposes, and Roberts said she is hoping it goes to shore up the public schools’ per-pupil allowance — the amount the state gives districts for each student in its schools — for the next couple years.

“We have schools in the state that are running out of money. Not because they’re bad money managers — they just aren’t getting the money coming in,” Roberts said.

She recommended people both inside and outside of her district contact their local state senator and representative to tell them how they feel the surplus money should be used.

Wodecki said that he did not see East Detroit Public Schools being on a bad road financially as it moves forward, particularly with a one-year extension granted on its debt repayment plan. A state board also found the district does not meet the criteria for a financial emergency, he said.

While the district has had its tragedies, Wodecki did not speak at length about them, focusing on the positives — more students attending Macomb Community College through its early college program, more kids in the school’s Great Start program and improving academic achievement, with two elementary schools receiving the top rating in a state evaluation system.

“Four years ago, East Detroit was defined by financial problems, but I can say that East Detroit is now defined at the state and county level as a district that can serve as a model for reinventing and renewing itself,” Wodecki said.

Gerds, who operates out of the 38th District Court in Eastpointe, said the court has seen a reduction in cases, such as felonies and traffic offenses, from five years ago, when he started. A statewide survey of the courts also found a large majority of respondents — 95 percent — thought his staff was courteous and respectful, with another 87 percent thinking the same about Gerds himself.

“I think the court, in a lot of situations, is a reflection of the community,” Gerds said. “We’re in a struggling economy, we’re all trying to make ends meet, and we wish things were going better than they are, but we’re dealing with it.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Kevin Bunch at kbunch@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.