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Bloomfield Township roads could take a hit under proposed DPW budget

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 21, 2019


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — “People are going to suffer. People are going to be injured. People are going to die because the services will not be there.”

That was Bloomfield Township Trustee Neal Barnett’s response to the idea of snow removal services being reduced and other potential cost reductions the Public Works Department could make next year to accommodate a smaller budget in 2020-21.

On Oct. 16, DPW Director Tom Trice presented to the Board of Trustees his ideas on how to slash his department’s budget from $5.47 million annually to a projected $3.44 million.

The need to cut costs comes following the Aug. 6 election, when voters rejected a special assessment district proposal that would have increased revenue to the township to keep services at their existing levels. The budget is expected to see an annual shortfall of around $5 million going forward as the cost of post-employment benefit obligations grows.

No more general fund help
Trice said the suggested cuts would total a reduction of $1.9 million from the DPW budget, which is currently the amount the department receives from the township’s general fund. DPW revenue also comes from a dedicated millage of more than $2.6 million from a 1-mill bond, of which 0.699 mill is currently levied after Headlee Amendment rollbacks, equating to around $138 for a home with a taxable value of around $200,000. In addition, there are miscellaneous revenues of about $150,000 and a contract agreement with the Road Commission for Oakland County to provide maintenance services on select county roads for around $714,000 per year.

Because of that contract with the Road Commission, there are core requirements the township must uphold in order to keep the stipend. But to eliminate the need for a general fund transfer each year, the department will have to pare back the extent of all of its services significantly, Trice said.

Pavement problems
One of the biggest reductions, totaling a projected $690,000, would come from the elimination of the DPW’s pavement preservation program. Concrete patching, asphalt overlays, cape sealing, joint sealing and associated engineering costs would end. Trice recommended to trustees, though, that if they seek to make that cut in the future, $25,000 should be added for pothole patching and $100,000 should be left in the DPW account for crack sealing and emergency repairs as they arise.

In-house patch paving by township personnel was another elimination that Trice mentioned, saving around $85,000.

“By eliminating this, our roads are going to deteriorate at an exponential rate,” Trice said of the patch paving program. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘How many potholes do you patch a year?’ We’re right at a million holes. So there’s a lot of throwing and going out there.”

Cutting the green
For a savings of $200,000, Trice said the amount of mowing the township does on the side of highways could be reduced. Currently, the grass in the medians and rights of way along routes like Telegraph Road is cut 23 times a season, though the Michigan Department of Transportation only reimburses for 14 mowings.

“If we do that, it will necessitate the removal of median plantings and gateway signs,” Trice said. “We have three signs that are irrigated, illuminated and landscaped, and those would need to be removed. That would be a one-time cost of about $62,000 to hire a contractor to remove signs and landscaping and return that area to grass.”

If the signs are left in place, the $200,000 savings projected would be scaled back to $170,000.

No more public care for private roads
Another way to save money could be to end legacy care of private roadways and retention ponds in association neighborhoods, like Little Lane, located off Hickory Grove Road, near Lahser Road. Around 6 miles of private roads were grandfathered in back in the 1970s for the township to maintain, and that responsibility would be returned to the homeowners in those communities.

The same goes for the care of subdivision retention ponds on private property. That, combined with nixing private roadway care, would amount to a projected $70,000 savings.

Slimmed-down storm cleanup
And then, Trice said, some of the township’s “first responder” services could be turned over to the county. Storm damage and tree removal along roads would be returned to the Road Commission, and residents would be responsible for what that agency doesn’t remove, like stumps of fallen or cut trees. That would free up around $100,000.

Snow removal would look a little different too, Trice explained. Most communities go by the “4-inch rule,” he said, which means that only when 4 inches of snow are on the ground can the DPW go into overtime for plowing and salting. Roads would be maintained as normal during operating hours Mondays-Thursdays. Salting is already limited to hills, curves and intersections, and brine is utilized to help salt stretch even further.

“We have 213 miles of road to maintain, and these guys know what’s on the line,” Trice said, pointing behind him to the DPW personnel at Township Hall that evening. “(If) we start cutting into their overtime, we cut into their pay big time. That’s $3,000 to $7,000 a person.”

Scaled-back snow mitigation would, depending on the weather, save the department around $370,000 annually.

County contributions
Finally, Trice said, the township could withdraw from the Road Commission’s tri-party program to save $220,000 annually. The program involves the Oakland County executive setting aside a certain amount of money, allocated by the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, in the general fund for the county. Then that amount is matched by the Road Commission and participating communities to fund road repairs.

Trice advised against that, however. He said the benefits to township roads are too valuable.

‘Not just sobering, it’s really sad’
Add to that the elimination of the household hazardous waste drop-off program — a move already enacted by the board — and keeping reductions made during hiring freezes, and the $1.9 million budget reduction is realized.

That realization, Treasurer Brian Kepes said, is a sobering one.

“We’re living within our means. The residents have voted,” Kepes said. “They are really going to have to have more responsibility for what’s going on — how they’re driving.”

Barnett agreed, and said the cuts are “beyond sobering. It’s really sad.

“People didn’t take it seriously as far as what was going to be lost,” he said, referring to the defeat of the $2.3 million SAD proposal in August. “They thought it was a scare tactic. It wasn’t a scare tactic. It’s the new reality.”

Trustee Michael Schostak echoed “the anguish” of the others on the board.

“Public safety is obviously very important. But most residents don’t come into contact with public safety every day or, hopefully, all that often. But I can’t think of anything that affects the quality of  life for residents more than water and sewer, snow plowing and the quality of the roads. It impacts every resident every day, every business owner,” he said.
Schostak added that he hopes the board will be “cautious and deliberate” in its approach to building the budget. No cuts will be made until then, and budget cut proposals made by the DPW, as well as the Police and Fire departments, are meant to be informative to trustees.

Who wields the ax?
Trustees David Buckley and Dani Walsh were absent from the meeting due to work conflicts. The Eagle reached out to both to get their thoughts on the DPW presentation. Walsh had not yet reviewed the meeting. Buckley declined to comment on the meeting specifically.

“It’s my understanding it was a presentation, and the current supervisor decides himself to authorize those changes,” Buckley said in an email.

Township Supervisor Leo Savoie said that it is partly true that he could implement actions without a board vote. Township Clerk Janet Roncelli, however, said any amendment to the current budget would need to be a board action. Such changes made this fiscal year were the elimination of the household hazardous waste program, the annual open house and the closure of the animal shelter. Those were voted on by the board in August.

Walsh, who joined with Buckley earlier this year on voting against the SAD proposal being placed on the August ballot, said she believes trustees do not have enough input.

“All of the reductions are being decided by (Savoie) and the employees,” Walsh wrote in an email. “The Board of Trustees is not allowed to be involved in the planning or the decisions. … This has been shocking and disappointing, considering better leadership would have chosen to bring the board together to work out ideas.”

Bloomfield Township Director of Communications Greg Kowalski confirmed that the supervisor designs the budget with input from various department heads, but he noted that the Board of Trustees has the responsibility to review, amend and ultimately approve the final draft via a majority vote. Public hearings are included to garner residents’ input.

Roncelli said that while the supervisor is responsible for preparing a budget by December, the Board of Trustees is included in budget study sessions ahead of the final vote in March.