Hazel Park finalizes public safety proposal

Five-year, 7.8-mill levy to be discussed at City Hall 7 p.m. Feb. 22

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 2, 2011


 At their meeting Jan. 25, City Council settled on a final figure for the Special Assessment for Police and Fire Services, the name of the public safety millage proposal that will go before voters on the May 3 ballot.

If approved, the millage will levy 7.8 mills for five years, raising $1.66 million to maintain staffing levels for the police and fire departments. Without the millage, about 18 to 20 full-time positions will need to be cut between police and fire. The city ambulance and advanced life-support service will also be eliminated.

In terms of what residents pay, it should be noted that the average residential taxable value for 2011-12 is $27,489, down from $33,614 in fiscal year 2010-11. This means the average city tax bill will go down about $279 for the average taxpayer.

Thus, even with the additional police and fire assessment, which will cost an average $215 per year, residents will still see a tax cut of $64 per year. Decreases will also be seen in what is paid to other taxing entities such as the state, county, community college, intermediate school district, zoo, etc.

Without the millage, “Hazel Park will be a more dangerous place to live,” said City Manager Ed Klobucher, adding that service levels would be on par with Highland Park, Detroit, Pontiac and Royal Oak Township. “Unfortunately, declining police resources have historically resulted in increased crime. Residents will be required to come to the police station to report more types of crimes and incidents. Some crimes will not be investigated. And response times will be greatly increased.”

Councilmembers agreed it’s critical that the millage pass.

“You want to provide city services? When you pick up the phone and dial 911, do you want someone at your door responding — fire, police, ALS?” said Councilman Mike Webb. “We live in a metro area where we need to have that public safety. You have to have minimum manpower at best, and if you don’t the state will come and take over, and they will levy a tax on you whether you like it or not. We have a say at this point and control of our destiny in Hazel Park by passing our own millage, rather than having someone else come in with no feelings as to the city we live in.”

Councilman Andy LeCureaux noted that if the millage vote failed, residents will see increases in auto and homeowner insurance as they experience declining city services.

“Folks may complain about the snowplow driver who buries the driveway, but what if the streets didn’t get plowed at all?” LeCureaux said. “Folks talk about police or fire workers who have lots of off-duty time or cushy benefits, but what if there aren’t enough police and fire workers to handle an emergency like the fire on I-75 in 2009?”
Don’t count on mutual aid in the event of such a catastrophe if Hazel Park can’t honor its end of the deal with other cities, Klobucher said.

“At such reduced staffing levels, the city may not be able to meet its mutual aid obligations, meaning that our neighboring communities may decide to terminate our mutual aid agreements, making it difficult for us to call upon them for assistance,” Klobucher said.

The millage comes at a time when Hazel Park officials say they’ve cut to the bone.

Cost-saving tactics included eliminating the positions of superintendent and full-time secretary at the Department of Public Works, done in December; refinancing Viking Ice Arena bonds to frontload $120,000 in savings to the current year’s budget; consolidating command positions in the Police Department; cutting police and fire positions, including fire marshal; partially combining Recreation and Ice Arena operations, so all operations are now run by part-time employees and volunteers; keeping City Hall clerical employees on a four-day, 32-hour work week; changing retiree healthcare; and a 5 percent pay cut from all employees, union and non-union alike.

“These cuts are only the most recent,” Klobucher said. “Hazel Park has been making cuts, seeking concessions and eliminating positions for the past nine years.”

“We’ve made monumental change as far I’m concerned,” Webb said.

The real root of the problem, Klobucher said, exists at the state level.

“Michigan’s system of municipal finance is completely broken,” he said. “The interaction between the Headlee Amendment and Proposal A will cap tax revenues at dramatically reduced levels in the future. In other words, if property values were to magically be restored to their pre-crash levels, it would take about 20 years for Hazel Park to receive the same revenue that the city received in 2008.

“Add to that broken system the fact that Hazel Park is fully built out, so there is almost no room to grow the tax base, dramatic cuts in revenue sharing payments from the state, and declining revenues from the Hazel Park (Harness) Raceway, and it begins to paint a clear picture,” he said. “Cities across South Oakland County are going to their voters for millage proposals, so Hazel Park is not unique.”

One common misconception is that sharing police services with nearby cities would help solve the problem, but it’s not so simple, he said.

“Hazel Park has the lowest combined cost per resident for our police and fire protection out of our neighboring communities, so it makes realizing savings very difficult for us,” Klobucher said. “Remember, state law requires that no employee be disadvantaged by a merger, so the net result is usually all employees move to the best contract provisions rather than the lowest.”

The city manager added, though, that the city continues to investigate possible ways to save money by sharing services with other units of government.

The goal is to keep the city strong and safe in trying economic times.

“I hope and pray that property values have hit bottom and that things will stabilize so that we have a steady financial future ahead of us,” LeCureaux said. “This millage is one of the pieces of the puzzle.”

To learn more about the Special Assessment for Police and Fire Services, attend the public meeting at Hazel Park City Hall, 111 E. Nine Mile Road, at 7 p.m. Feb. 22.