By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK — Emergency Manager Brad Coulter has a fairly good idea of what to expect next week when he presents the financial and operating plan for the city that he sent last month to state officials, but also knows that residents understand the challenges facing the cash-strapped city.
“Everybody is at least optimistic that it can be fixed,” Coulter said. “But we haven’t made the final decisions just yet.”
A public informational meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Kennedy Memorial Bandshell, 3240 Ferris. Coulter will present an overview of the 17-page report submitted last month to state treasury officials that outlined budget cuts and restructurings needed to eliminate the city’s longstanding budget deficit.
Coulter – who was appointed earlier this year by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as emergency manager – said that once state officials approve the plan he submitted, it will likely take up to a year to implement the outlined changes.
Many of the strategies described in the report – available on the city’s website, at www.lincolnpark.govoffice.com – are avenues that Coulter proposes for exploration, and final decisions on many areas have yet to be confirmed. Coulter, however, said key areas of change are inevitable.
“This is what I plan on doing,” Coulter said. “Not everything in there may make sense to do, but we definitely have to restructure the fire department. It’s way too expensive the way it’s set up now.”
Coulter anticipates up to $1 million in annual savings by changing the current fire department to either a shared-resources fire authority that partners with neighboring communities, cross-training firefighters as paramedics, or trimming the staff and making use of volunteers or paid on-call firefighters.
Up to 80 percent of the department’s current activity involves medical runs, Coulter said, and the challenge was and is to find an affordable delivery model to provide public safety services. While looking to streamline the fire department, Coulter also said he’d like to add police officers to the payroll, if possible.
Solutions won’t be easily found. Coulter said the past two administrations have trimmed expenses as much as possible.
“All other costs are cut to the bone,” Coulter said. “We get phone calls about how we’re not able to maintain the parks, about blighted houses, homes that are not maintained. We’re just not keeping up with the general maintenance of the city.”
Coulter said he’s met frequently with residents who understand the dire situation. Property values have steadily declined over the past five years, reducing the revenues needed to keep pace with rising costs for public safety, city administration and – arguably the biggest challenge – retiree pensions.
“They’re in danger of running out of money in the next 10 years,” Coulter said. “The only place to get that money is from retiree health care. I know it’s painful, but I don’t see how else to shore up the fund.”
Strategies for reducing costs and improving the city’s income will be outlined at next week’s public information meeting. Under emergency management the city will be required to adhere to state-approved budget adjustments, but also to take steps toward a return to solvency.
“No. 1, we have to stop the slide in property values, that’s the main source of revenue,” Coulter said. “We have to do a better job of maintaining and making sure the city is safe. To argue that we can cut more services or police – that’s going to shoot you in the foot in the long run.”
Changes won’t happen overnight. Coulter said the submitted plan provides a blueprint by which city officials will explore every avenue of efficiency, including health care coverage options for retirees.
Additional revenue streams will be explored, but those likely won’t happen through taxation – voters have twice rejected a Headlee amendment override, most recently during the August primary election.
“We already have some of the highest millage rates in the metro Detroit area,” Coulter said.
Instead the plan is to approach steady, long-term solutions. Coulter said residents he’s met with seem to understand the problem, and hope that the right answers are found.
“I think it will work,” Coulter said. “Let’s get this done right. Hopefully property values start stabilizing and increasing over time. It’s easy to complain, but tell me the alternatives.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected].)