Council members outline priorities for new fiscal year

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 22, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS — With a balanced budget under their belts for the fiscal year that starts July 1, members of the Madison Heights City Council shared their thoughts on the result.

In a series of emails, the council members who responded spoke of the city’s financial picture, and the items they wish to see prioritized going forward.

“For two years now, the city has been approaching the budget and the economic uncertainties surrounding it very carefully,” said Robert Corbett, the most veteran member of the City Council. “We’ve cut back and very judiciously approached new expenditures, with an eye towards the post-pandemic economy. While there is still a bit of uncertainty moving forward, it’s imperative the city continue implementing a number of long-term programs. Driving the strong financial outlook for the city is a bullish real estate market, which several years in still shows no signs of abating.”

Among the long-term projects, Corbett said, is modernizing the parks system, which includes the systematic replacement of play structures and walking paths that have deteriorated with time. Corbett has studied the issue as a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee for over 10 years.

Another project is the redevelopment of the Civic Center Complex, which includes City Hall and the library at the corner of 13 Mile and John R roads. The Active Adult Center will be relocated there during the renovation process.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fully modernize our library, and better attune its services to the needs of residents,” Corbett said. “Integrating modern internet and software services, as well as providing attractive and functional meeting and study spaces, are within our grasp.”

Council member Mark Bliss said his top priorities for the new fiscal year are maintaining the city’s investment in public safety, keeping taxes down, and enhancing the parks system.

“The economic recovery definitely made things a bit more challenging, but we’re blessed to have such an incredible staff that’s capable of getting creative to work through uncertain times,” Bliss said. “There are still a lot of details to work out, but the plan to take planned maintenance costs and property sales and turn them into an updated single campus for City Hall, the Active Adult Center and the library is probably the most ambitious thing we’ve done in the past two decades. Not only will it provide our residents with better facilities, it will also leverage some real efficiencies due to the shared spaces that will save money on an ongoing basis.”

That being said, Bliss lamented that a similarly large-scale investment hasn’t been made in the city’s parks. He said he would like to see something major added, like a splash pad, a new recreation center or another pocket park.

“We’ve thankfully made some real headway on small additions like the Fitness Court and maintenance, but despite multiple resident surveys and meetings that say it’s a priority, we have yet to compile a real plan as a city on how we’re going to accomplish (a major park addition),” Bliss said. “Frankly, it’s far too easy for us to keep saying we don’t have the funds, but I believe that if we don’t start saving for it, then that is not really a real excuse. Purposeful planning here could pay real dividends, as it would allow us to take advantage of grants and public/private partnerships, if/when they become available to us. I’ll keep bringing it up as we go into our budget cycle next year, and hopefully my peers on council will agree to include something in the budget for it.

“Even $10,000 a year (in savings for a future park addition) will build up over time, and should we ever run into a tough economic climate, we as a council could still make the decision to pull from that park’s fund, if necessary,” Bliss said. “If nothing else, setting this money aside will show our residents that we’ve heard them and are working toward their goals. However small the step, a step forward is still progress, and shows that we have a real vision for the future of our parks.”

All things considered, however, Bliss feels good about the new budget.

“It continues our investment in public safety, while still not leveraging the entire millage, in an effort to keep taxes as low as possible. It also hit on one of my top priorities by making our biggest investment into our parks system in a past decade, allowing for many out-of-date and unsafe structures to be updated or replaced,” Bliss said. “This is a huge win for our residents, and a big step forward for our efforts to make every park in our city one that we can all be proud of.”

Council member Emily Rohrbach said her approach to the budget was being cognizant of the financial challenges many residents faced during the pandemic, while providing the best options to ensure that quality-of-life programs and services improve.

“As always, I have a significant interest in improving our environment, trees and parks for residents, as well as making improvements to our library and senior services,” Rohrbach said.

“With the pandemic, it was hard to know just what our financial outlook would be as a city,” she said. “We had to take into account past challenges and future needs, and come up with a balanced approach for both growth and stability.”

She said she’s also looking forward to the redevelopment of Civic Center Plaza.

“I am most excited about our decision to move forward with Phase 2 of a project that would improve our City Hall, Active Adult Center and library. This project is one that we will be able to leverage funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and fund balance, with little to no impact on residents’ taxes, and will result in improved facilities for resident use,” Rohrbach said.

“I am also grateful to our (Department of Public Services) for an in-depth study on short, medium and long-term needs in our parks,” she said. “We were able to prioritize replacement and improvements in our parks system, including repairing backstops for safety reasons, repaving magic squares (basketball courts), and replacing declining play structures.

Going forward, “I want the city to focus on addressing maintenance repairs that have been put off for too long,” Rohrbach said. “Some of these issues will be addressed with our current budget, and others are on the docket for the near future. If ignored, minor issues become major issues, and we have the responsibility to make smart investments in our community facilities.

“I’m really pleased with the budget for the coming year,” she concluded. “We will be able to leverage federal funds to ensure our community sees the greatest possible benefit, and we are being proactive in addressing concerns before they become major problems.”

Mayor Pro Tem David Soltis said his top budgetary priority is to support public safety in terms of police and fire, including the Special Investigations Unit that helps apprehend criminals involved in human trafficking at the hotels and motels. Helping the city to safely overcome the pandemic is another top priority. At the same time, he wants to see the city hold more family-friendly events and other attractions so that it remains a fun place to live and visit.

“We as a city are well on our way to financially rebuild after this pandemic. Our revenue was down, and in terms of budget, it was as if we were in a recession. However, we as a city always put our residents first, and continue focusing on all our residents’ needs,” Soltis said.

“We will not skip a beat with city services,” he said. “That’s what our residents deserve, and that’s why we all pay our taxes — for premier Madison Heights services. Our city personnel have done a fantastic job with operations, especially on a budget that obviously was completely altered with this pandemic for 15 months. With our city manager’s expert financial stewardship, we are able to triage the COVID monetary hit and turn the city around, moving forward again.

“All I see are good things ahead for the city and our residents,” Soltis said. “We will come out of this pandemic stronger, smarter and more resilient than ever before.”

The mayor, Roslyn Grafstein, said her top priorities included support of public safety and emergency services. She also sounded a note of fiscal caution given current events.

“With so many unknowns across the country, state and city as the world is slowly reopening after the pandemic shutdown, I want to ensure that we are able to meet the core needs of the city, with enough in reserves should we face a revenue decrease in the future,” Grafstein said. “With so many unknowns with the finances of our tax-paying businesses and residents, we had to realize that plans we had a few years ago may need to be put on hold while we interpret the new financial reality.

“Some of our businesses were able to easily pivot, adjusting their business model, and in some cases the pandemic resulted in an increase in business. For so many others, it was a struggle to keep their doors open and pay the bills. The same applies to our residents, some of whom were able to transition and work from home, spending less on their commute, eating out and dry cleaning, while others struggled to pay for additional childcare or took a significant payout,” the mayor said.

“When we have the resources, potentially from a grant opportunity, I would like to see us working with an outside professional firm to help guide us with respect to diversity and inclusion opportunities,” Grafstein said. “It is beneficial for the city to partner with a firm that has experience seeking out and fostering best practices to create an inclusive city for an increasingly diverse community. This inclusion would cover differing races, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, ages, cultures, etc.”

On the topic of diversity, she said the city needs to help protect minorities.  

“Across the country, we have seen a significant increase in hate crimes against Asians, Jews, Muslims, etc, and I want us to be proactive in keeping that ignorance and hate from the city,” Grafstein said. “The new census for Madison Heights is expected to show an increase in the Asian population from 5-10%, as well as an increase in diversity of religions. With a quarter of our residents being immigrants, we have already seen some of the benefits this diversity brings to Madison Heights.

“We must continue to nurture the relationships we have with the Chinese Cultural Center and the American Islamic Community Center, both based in Madison Heights,” she continued. “As our demographics change, we need to seek out other culturally diverse groups whose partnership will add to the overall quality of life for everyone in the community.

“The other area I would like to see us invest in is making the city even more walkable and bike-able,” Grafstein said. “When we had the ribbon-cutting of the Fitness Court at Huffman Park, I biked over for the evening portion and realized there wasn’t a bike rack. Bike racks are relatively inexpensive, and I would like to encourage more people to go biking by having easier access to bike racks in all our parks and throughout the city.”