By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – What a difference a year makes, and Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said the approaching end of his tenure marks the beginning of a new era for the city.
“Everything is set to return control back to the city,” Coulter said, with expectations of ending his days at city hall shortly before or soon after the new year. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but the city is above water and can grow from here.”
Coulter said restoring the city to solvency – or at least bringing an end to a budget deficit that approached $5 million before state control was issued last year – is the result of a number of decisions and agreements.
“The goal with any of these situations is to stabilize it, and put it back on the right path,” Coulter said.
For years before Coulter’s appointment in July 2014 to oversee the city’s finances, revenues and housing properties declined while basic costs – including the city’s retirement and pension funds – remained an annual challenge to meet.
City officials took as many steps as they could. Staffing was cut from nearly 150 in 2009 to just 83 full-time employees. Several ballot proposals seeking millage increases were rejected by voters.
Progress, however, was seen through negotiations with public safety unions, a modified retiree health care plan and other cost-savings initiatives.
On the revenue side, Coulter said the city has added streams including towing reimbursements from ambulance companies and businesses taxes from a number of new enterprises in town.
“We’ll finish with a positive general fund budget,” Coulter said.
In September, the city council approved a $40.7 million plan for 2015-16 that marked the first non-deficit budget in years.
Challenges remain, Coulter said, including long-term solutions for a still-underfunded pension plan, to be faced by the mayor, city council and recently-hired City Manager Matt Coppler. State oversight through a regional transaction authority panel will continue until the city is deemed ready to exit receivership.
That day is closer than it was a year ago, with continued prospects for improvement. Less tangible in terms of dollars have been resident-supported projects including restoration of the city’s iconic Bandshell at Kennedy Memorial Park, which in 2016 will for the first time in years regularly host live music with free summer concerts.
“That’s kind of a key piece for trying to restore a community,” Coulter said.
The project was spearheaded by city intern Giles Tucker and paid for through a crowd-sourcing campaign.
“It felt like Lincoln Park should, with people getting together,” Coulter said. “The city needs to attract new residents and part of that is making this a place people want to be.”
Lincoln Park was Coulter’s first assignment as emergency manager for a city, although he served the same role for private corporations.
“I was surprised how much I enjoyed the people of Lincoln Park,” Coulter said. “I was able to really get involved in the community, and it’s a really nice city.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])