Harper Woods City Council approves 2021 budget

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published November 18, 2020

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HARPER WOODS — The Harper Woods City Council approved the city’s budget for 2021 at its regular meeting Oct. 19.

Finance Director and acting City Manager John Szymanski described the budget as being fairly in line with that of 2020.

“Essentially this is a status quo budget. We don’t project any big hiccups in 2021,” he said. “We project to add to our fund balance. We were under 10% fund balance last year, we will be over it for 2021 to maybe 14% or 15% after this year. There is no reduction in police or fire services in the city. We are receiving our COVID-19 reimbursement allotments. We are filing for grants as needed.”

He went on to say that residential property values showed an increase in the last year and that commercial property values remained mostly the same, albeit with a need for improvement.

“Our housing stock actually did very well and houses appreciated substantially,” said Szymanski. “There have been a lot of older properties that have been uncapped. Commercial properties are still languishing, but not as much in the past. We are still in talks to repurpose Eastland Mall, so hopefully we will have some good news on that front in the near future.”

“As a municipality, we always want to see revenue coming from housing stock to improve,” said Mayor Valerie Kindle. “That means we get better taxable value. Our housing stock is pretty good right now. It’s a vast improvement over where it was a few years ago. As for businesses, everyone is having a hard time with business property values because people aren’t able to take advantage of going into them all the time. No one wants to sit in a restaurant right now.”

Szymanski said that local taxes will show a slight decrease in the coming year and residents will be paying just under 46 mills — $46 for every $1,000 of taxable property — between all Harper Woods millages and assessments.

“I want to say that we did have a Headley Amendment rollback, which has caused us to shave back some of the millages for our general government fund, as well as the refuse and library fund,” he explained. “Taxes will be slightly less than last year due to these rollbacks.”

Major expenditures in the new year will include long awaited upgrades to City Hall as well as several new road projects.

“We are putting a new roof on City Hall and adding a new boiler and windows in the building,” said Szymanski. “We also are replacing our water meters in the city to give more accurate counts. We will repave part of Beaconsfield in the coming months and will have a new crosswalk project on Kelly Road coming up as well.”

He and the mayor said there will still be several financial challenges coming in 2021, including the ongoing issue of what they say is insufficient revenue sharing from the state of Michigan.

“We’re already looking at even less state revenue sharing to communities and maybe no money from the federal government,” said Kindle. “Municipalities all over the country are dealing with this. Our Finance Department is doing their best to make everything as planned as possible, but that is the best any of us can do right now.”

Both said that predicting any municipality’s financial future is difficult due to the uncertain nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One thing that everyone should know is that we really don’t know how our budget will truly be because of COVID-19,” Kindle said. “Because of the expenditures needed to handle the disease, we can only estimate and put forth what we think we’ll be able to live with next year, barring any major changes or deductions.”

Adding to the uncertainty is the increasing burden of legacy costs for city retirees.

“We’re still in our 2020 budget until December. For 2021, the jury is out,” Szymanski said. “We have to see what 2021 brings to see where the future lies. The state is still struggling as a result of COVID, so it’s too early to make any assessments for 2022. Our legacy costs are still going up and the economy is still going to struggle from COVID across the country for some time still. With so many people in lockdown and so many businesses such as restaurants not being able to open to full capacity is going to have an impact. If we have to dip into fund balance reserves in Harper Woods, so be it. … The council has allowed us flexibility to adjust line items in the budget as needed since there can be unexpected emergencies, so 2021 is an unknown, but we are doing our best to prepare for that unknown.”

Kindle said she hopes more than anything that 2021 is an easier year for residents than 2020 has been.

“My hope for 2021 is that it’s nothing like 2020,” she remarked. “I hope we can live within our budget and keep our city in the black. At this point, it’s just stay the course and be able to access grants and money from other sources to provide city resources whenever we can.”