Harper Woods continues special assessment district

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published May 14, 2015

HARPER WOODS — The City Council voted to continue a special assessment district so that it can move forward with a proposal to levy 15 mills to cover costs for police and fire services.

It’s not a new scenario, since the city has been levying a special assessment for the last few years. This year’s proposed special assessment is more than the 12.5 mills levied last year between police and fire.

“The reason it’s more — and I just stress this — this city stopped paying its pension contributions. We can’t do that anymore,” City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk said.

This year’s assessment will be broken down with 10 mills for police and 5 mills for fire, if passed by council. After agreeing to continue the special assessment district, the council will consider the actual millage amount during a meeting May 18, after press time, but 15 mills is what Skotarczyk said is needed.

Those mills will mean about an average tax bill for the special assessment of $477, compared to an estimated average of $440 last year, according to police information.

Skotarczyk said he understands that residents have to deal with the tax burden.

“I am empathetic about that,” he said. “I understand the pain that that gives.”

The cost of operating the city’s police and fire services is $4.3 million in 2015. The special assessment would bring in about $3 million, Skotarczyk said.

That money is to keep the city operating near current levels, not to pay for extras, Skotarczyk said.

“We cannot afford to operate the police and fire that we have today without a Public Act 33 assessment,” Skotarczyk said. “We can’t do it without the assessment. It doesn’t mean the city would fold up and go away, but it would require drastic cuts throughout all of the city offices and every department in the city to maintain services.”

The problem has been an ongoing one for the city in recent years. The city’s tax base plummeted during the recession. Total taxable value went from $465 million at one point to $203 million currently, which means the city lost more than 50 percent of its operating revenue, Skotarczyk said.

On top of that, the city has been hit with soaring costs in areas including pensions and health care.

Resident Mike Codotte spoke during the public hearing about the need to balance the legacy costs with the current taxpayer needs. He asked about the need to make changes to retiree health care.

“We’re trying to balance the needs of the retirees against the current needs of the taxpayers,” he said. “Where do we put the burden?

“The taxpayers are kind of suffering; there’s a lot of people on fixed incomes in Harper Woods,” he said. “I don’t have the answer to this, but I think maybe we should look at the retiree health care costs for those who are under 65.” 

Skotarczyk said city officials have made some modifications in retiree health care to lead to cost savings, but there are restrictions on what they can do legally.

The City Council can choose not to levy a special assessment or levy less than recommended, but the city will have to make major adjustments.

At one time, Harper Woods had 109 full-time employees. The city now has just 57.

“We have cut almost half of our employees out already,” Skotarczyk said.

If the city chooses not to levy a special assessment, the Police Department would need to be slashed from 26 to 14. There would also be cuts in the Fire Department, Department of Public Works and court. The city would also let go of all of its 24 part-time staffers.

For the Police Department, it would mean having two or one officer on duty at a time. That would result in a big hit to revenue from fines and grants that are generated through the Police Department, according to city information.

As for cuts, the city has been working with unions on making more reductions.

“We’ve asked the employees to take significant cuts in their pensions,” Skotarczyk said.

A few of the unions have agreed to cuts.

With significantly less staff, employees have been wearing multiple hats. Salaries have been frozen with no raises since 2006 for general employees, wages have been locked for police and fire since 2010, and according to the city, there are no means to offer raises in the near future.

“We’ve asked a lot of employees,” Skotarczyk said. “We can’t give raises.”

Ultimately, the goal has been to ensure that residents continue to receive city services near the same levels as in the past, despite the cuts.

“For the most part, we’ve tried our very best to not inconvenience our residents with the cuts that we’ve made,” Skotarczyk said.