City discusses need to increase staff, raise revenue

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 24, 2021


STERLING HEIGHTS — Sterling Heights City Council members recently learned that residents might have to pay higher property taxes and water prices to compensate for the need for more staff.

During a Jan. 26 Sterling Heights City Council strategic planning session, Assistant City Manager Jeff Bahorski discussed the city staffing situation at City Hall and beyond.

Bahorski said the city has run on a lean staffing model and has been successful up until now. But he said the city still needs a sufficient number of employees to be effective, regardless of how brilliant its strategies are. He said the city currently has 3.7 full-time employees per 1,000 residents, compared to 4.4 in Troy, 4.5 in Farmington Hills and 5.3 in Warren.

He said that Sterling Heights has 486 employees, which is fewer than the 649 it had in 2002. Community relations staff is down 50%, administration staff is down 40% and police staff is down 25% since 2002, he added.

Bahorski said that, despite technological advances, the city needs bodies to handle staffing needs. He said city officials want 16 more general full-time employees: eight for city administration, four for public works, two for city development, one for the community relations department and one for the 41-A District Court.

During the meeting, Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski explained that his department has about 1.1 officers per 1,000 residents, compared to Troy’s 1.2 officers and Warren’s 1.45 officers.

Dwojakowski said a manpower study revealed that the Police Department could use, among other things, a deputy chief of police, more traffic safety officers and the upgrade of a part-time animal control officer to become full time. He also mentioned his wish for adding two full-time community police officers and forming a directed patrol unit to deal with issues such as speeding, inns and auto-related thefts.

To pay for the desired personnel, city officials recommended a few actions. Finance and Budget Director Jennifer Varney said the city could hire 12 general-fund positions with a property tax increase of 0.25 mills. Officials said that would cost the average homeowner an estimated $20 per year, based on a home with an estimated value of about $150,000.

In addition, Varney said the city needs to hire four water and sewer positions because the water and sewer clerks are “woefully understaffed.” She said the new hires would require a water and sewer rate increase that would cost the average water user about $5.50 per year.

According to Varney, the proposed millage increase would raise about $1.2 million, and the water and sewer increase would be based on an estimated staff cost of around $400,000.

“What we’re proposing is that all the hires would be in next year’s budget,” Varney told Mayor Michael Taylor.

Dwojakowksi said that, in order to pay for seven new police hires — five directed patrol officers and two community services bureau officers — the Police Department could close its privately contracted jail and instead move arrestees to the Macomb County Jail in Mount Clemens. That would save the city about $600,000 a year, he said. Dwojakowski also said increased fines collected from the directed patrol unit could generate around $100,000 a year.

Varney said personnel costs make up about 73% of the general fund. Although the city recently had to use a bit of its fund balance due to the coronavirus crisis, she said it is at a “comfortable” amount.

Multiple council members supported the deputy police chief idea. Councilwoman Maria Schmidt said she knew the day was coming when the city would need more employees, adding that departments were “essentially gutted in the recession.”

Councilwoman Deanna Koski was on board with the police hires.

“I would just like us to find a money tree and keep the jail,” she said.

At the end of the strategic planning meeting, Councilman Henry Yanez called it a difficult situation and said, “This is very much tongue in cheek: There’s nothing better than being a politician in a public meeting in an election year talking about raising taxes and rates on the citizens.”

Yanez noted that many residents live on fixed incomes, adding that even an overall tax or fee increase of $20-$50 a month may come out of a food budget or a medicine budget.

But while he said the city must consider that, he also warned against the idea that more can be done with less.

“And as a former employee, I also know that you get to a tipping point where you start doing less with less,” he said. “And we cannot afford to do that here in the city and maintain the quality of life that we have in the city.”

No formal council action was taken on any of the hiring or revenue-increasing ideas raised during the Jan. 26 strategic planning session.

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