Monday, June 07, 2010

Blind to the obvious

[Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2010 edition of Ferndale Friends]

It’s a good thing the DDA spent $40,000 on the Crow’s Nest sculpture.  With Ferndale’s public safety departments slashed 20%, the constable inside the tree-house on Woodward at Nine Mile may be the only officer with job security.

Ferndale city council has finalized its budget.  The Kulick Center survived the cuts, but eight police officers and four firemen did not.  We have churches with spaces our community may utilize.  Affirmations does as well, as will our new library.  We have health clubs both in and very-near the city’s center for working out on state-of-the-art equipment and aerobics.  What Ferndale doesn’t have, charitable or not, is an organization that responds to 911 calls, keeps little fires from becoming big fires, will enter  big ones to save lives, and respond to the 1700+ medical calls-per-year (nearly five a day!).

Ferndale doesn’t have a fashionable special interest or advocacy group that’s prepared to police our southern border, our parks, or assist neighboring communities respond to their emergencies or manage traffic for parades and festivals.

Our city government, and by extension its public safety department, are uniquely qualified and authorized to do things no other organization, public or private, is able to do; apprehend, arrest, and detain suspected criminals.

The staff and volunteers of Affirmations, as great as they are, wouldn’t have been much good at the VFW hall after the December 19 birthday party shooting.  The members of the First Baptist Church or their new tenants, SOS, haven’t the equipment to respond to fires, strokes, heart attacks, domestic violence, reckless driving, drunk driving, or chemical spills.  Kulick-center patrons aren’t going to raid a drug-house, keep our streets safe for children on Halloween, or bring their emergency vehicles to our block parties, picnics and fairs to thrill children and introduce them to the brave men and women that protect and serve.

A lot of people want to lay all the blame on city council for the cuts.  I’m not one of them.  Ferndale’s voters hired our current city council in 2005, 2007, and 2009.  I include 2005 because there were already warnings the housing bubble artificially inflated city budgets in the mid-decade as much as it did property values.

Having learned nothing from the Savings and Loan scandal in the early 90s or the internet bubble burst in 2000, there was little sense of caution or restraint as council continued hiring and spending as though hiring, spending, and arts & crafts was the purpose of government.

OK.  Maybe for some it is.

Regardless, all our city council persons were elected by voters.  It’s up to voters to tell city council whether they agree the city should be managed by $6,000-surveys, USA Today’s at-a-glance charts, or by pop-urbanists.

In the same week Ferndale’s downtown was patting itself on the back for Mainstreet’s National  “Best In Show” award, residents on Camden (third block north of Eight Mile, west of Woodward ) alerted police to two people sawing catalytic converters off parked cars and a drug house that was subsequently raided by Ferndale Police and the Oakland County Narcotics Squad.

I applaud Camden residents’ devotion to their neighborhood and hope city council is as vigilant of all our streets as they are opportunities to promote downtown or their political careers.

But until property values return to rational levels there are no easy budget remedies.   And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.

According to our city manager, Bob Bruner, our four-square-mile corporation would have already declared bankruptcy had it not been a government.   But like a company, tough economic times present as many opportunities as challenges.

Falling revenues provide us an opportunity to prioritize our spending--an opportunity for our city to discriminate between core and discretionary services.  A core service is one that only our government is given the authority to do, or one that if our city didn’t provide it there’s little reason to have a city at all.  Like public safety, zoning, and community development.

 A discretionary item is a service or facility that can be easily provided by another entity—either public or private.  Think meeting rooms and halls, kitchens, exercise equipment, garbage collection, leaf pick-up, and ballroom dance lessons.

Between the extremes public safety and ballroom dancing (and I rank Plante Moran Cresa’s nurturing council’s desire for a new city hall about as important as publicly-funded ballroom dancing), it is council’s job to prioritize how tax dollars are spent.

The easiest way for government to avoid prioritizing or risk upsetting the beneficiaries of discretionary spending (and their votes) is to raise taxes.

Council has already asked the city manager to prepare a buffet of tax increases they might consider for the fall ballot.  Two of them will certainly be a dedicated public safety millage (an extra tax for something the city should fully fund in the first-place) and a Headlee Override, which would allow the city to increase its millage rate to 20.0000 from 2010’s 14.5448.

According to early estimates, Mr. Bruner has indicated a Headlee Override could bring-in $3.4 million for the 2012-2013 budget.

Given the dilemma of further cuts or tax increases, and the surviving discretionary items in the 2010-2011 budget, I’m disposed to more cuts before raising taxes.

We’ll know when city budgets become critical when discretionary expenses are almost non-existent and the other local cities’ resistance and excuses for not integrating more services finally disappears.

Newsflash:  Just before going to press, I heard a rumor that city council has a plan to augment our diminished police force.  They’ve asked Bob Bruner to investigate erecting eight constable-occupied tree-house sculptures, like the one downtown, along our Eight Mile border to discourage crime.  They want to call them Scare-Crows Nests.

If you have a short story you think would make a great tag-ending to this column, write me at

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