By DANIEL HERATY
HEIGHTS – Candidates for city clerk, city council and District 7 School Board talked about their experience and approach to tough decisions during a candidate forum Sept. 29.
The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Dearborn-Dearborn Heights, included a question-and-answer session with the candidates for their respective elections.
The general election will be held Nov. 8.
Chairman for Citizens for Dearborn Heights Committee Tony Perry said the economic crisis that led to the proposed override is not unique and has affected many other areas. He said annual property taxes in the city are down $4.1 million, state revenue sharing is down $3.2 million and court revenue is down $1.1 million, adding up to an $8.4 million shortfall from the city’s $35 million general fund budget.
“If the millage is not passed, then the massive losses will continue to grow,” he said, “and the city must address these losses with massive cuts to services.” He said cuts could include eliminating the Department of Recreation and recreation facilities, eliminating fire stations and cutting between 30 and 50 percent of Fire and Police department staffing.
During the forum for Council candidates, Councilmen Ned Apigian and Kenneth Baron, Kathleen Abdel-Hak, Scott Craig and Lisa Hicks-Clayton, weighed in on Michigan Public Act 345 deferred retirement option plan enacted in January 2007. Under the plan, police officers and firefighters who are able to retire but want to keep working for the city can defer their pension for five years for firefighters and seven years for police officers.
The money would go back into the retirement fund, and the employee could collect it after they officially retire. All five candidates said the program could be eliminated in the future.
“It’s important as City Council representatives to make decisions … based on what is best for our residents,” Hicks-Clayton said. “(The retirement policy is) something that definitely needs to have a study session and further investigation on a regular basis.”
Abdel-Hak said the real problem lies with the contract negotiations.
“What stared out as a good idea has become something totally different,” she said. “The DROP (deferred retirement option plan) is not so much the problem, it’s what goes into the DROP.”
Apigian, who was not on the council when the program was voted on, said it was extremely expensive.
Incumbents Councilwoman Janet Badalow and current City Clerk Walter Prusiewicz were asked about the possible consolidation of voting precincts after the district lines are redrawn following the drop in Michigan’s population in the 2010 census. They said that consolidation would be a good idea, but each had different ideas about how soon to make the changes.
Prusiewicz said that consolidation needs to happen, and the current election staff – 180 employees – is too much.
“We will definitely consolidate districts, we will save money,” he said. “We will wait for the redistricting, but it is one of the main priorities after the November election that we start (consolidating).”
Three candidates for District 7 School Board, Vickie Bracken, Catherine Bunker and Velma Truitt, weighed in on various topics, including the possible consolidation of schools and declining enrollments.
A fourth candidate, Robert Brown, was absent.
Baker said there need to be steps taken in order to make parents more involved with education.
“It’s important for a parent to to come in to a building and take that step,” she said. “They need to feel welcomed and that their child matters. It goes hand-in-hand with joining parental groups, which can be intimidating.”
The candidates also addressed ways to save extracurricular programs in the schools that have been affected by budget cuts.
Baker said the finances could lead to a-pay-to-play incentive, which requires students to pay fees to play sports, could prevent less fortunate students from participating in athletics.
“I’ve been there when I can’t afford to to pay-to-play, and there have been accommodations to play at a reduced rate,” Baker said. “There is the possibility of looking to the community for assistance.”
(Daniel Heraty can be reached at [email protected])