Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ferndale's population decline is not cool

"Michigan .. enjoyed the dubious distinction of being the only state in the nation to see its population decline in the past decade.."

So starts a December 22 article from the Christan Science Monitor. Ferndale should be glad the national media isn't taking a closer look at its numbers as it might blemish its "cool city" press clippings.

Or worse, Ferndale's population decline may change the meaning of "cool" city to "frigid", and that won't attract the twenty-somethings.

In actual numbers, Michigan lost 54,804 people in 10 years. If the regional trend was actually 3.6% growth, then Michigan had to lose 412,588 to both nullify birth rates and remove actual numbers of real people.

Meanwhile, Ferndale lost 963 persons since 2000. As a percentage of its population, Ferndale lost 4.3% of its population to Michigan's 0.55%. In other words, Ferndale lost population at 7.8 times the rate of Michigan as a whole. If Ferndale should have grown 3.6% then it actually lost the equivalent of 1699 residents--nearly 170 people/year, or 7.69% attrition.

That's cool?

Contrary to former Mayor Covey's "it's no big deal" comment about Ferndale's population decline, the loss is actually an alarm, but perhaps too-high pitched to be noticed by politicians more attuned to gay rights, medical marijuana, downtown nightlife, and new parking decks than noise ordinances, or how the school district is lowering Ferndale's attractiveness with perennial sub-standard test scores and adult-ed students causing problems in the neighborhoods.

Heck, Ferndale has even lost vocal proponents and active citizens when their children became school-age.

But not to worry, we can still be Facebook Friends with them.

Ferndale's numbers are even more disturbing when it's size is considered relative to the state.

Ferndale lost 1.757% of Michigan's 54804, or 1/54th of the total, even though Ferndale's 3.9 square miles are less than 1/14000th of Michgian's 57324.

How can those numbers be appealing to business? How can those numbers appeal to families?  Htow can those numbers appeal to anyone thinking of the long-term value of a Ferndale purchase if every year there are fewer and fewer people in the city?

In 1990, Ferndale's population was 25,026. Since then Ferndale's lost 16% of its residents, 16% of its shoppers, 16% of its grocery needs, clothing , etc. etc. etc.

But is it really no big deal?

Ferndale's population decline is a big deal. Ferndale's neighborhoods are a big deal. Ferndale has more square-acerage of neighborhood than it does downtown, but the people that live in Ferndale aren't given nearly the attention at council meetings as Downtown Decoration Association, or DDA.  Somehow, the city council measures success more by the vacancy rate downtown than empty houses on our neighborhood streets.

And that's wrong.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Smoking and liquor -- has it affected Ferndale businesses?

An area bowling lounge owner wrote the Detroit News to complain the smoking ban has hit his businesses hard.
I looked up all of the bowling centers in Oakland and Wayne counties and found that almost all of them were down anywhere from 15 percent to 55 percent in liquor purchases from the state.

For example, Thunderbowl in Allen Park, which is Michigan's largest bowling center and the country's second largest bowling center, is down 46.9 percent in liquor sales.

My own company figures verify this information. My controlling revenue number is the bowling activity, which is down slightly less than 10 percent, which can be due in part to unemployment, the economy and weather; my lounge revenues are down 17 percent, with the difference attributable to the effect of the smoking ban.

It is nearly impossible to extrapolate with certainty that lower sales are attributable to smoking and not the area's economy.  But according to Comerica's chief economis, Dana Johnson, Michigan's recession started in 2003.  And if we've arrived at the bottom, as some experts claim, then sales would be flat, not falling.

Our business is down about 10%, and while painful, we will survive." writes Paul Stuart, owner of Luxury Lanes 16 on Nine Mile in Ferndale."

Paul knows the letter writer, Mark Voight well.  Mark told Paul that as the weather got colder his sales were "a disaster."  That is the time when most smokers will tire of standing out in the cold and paying a premium for food and beverages, when they could both save money and stay warm eating, drinking, and smoking at home.

The economy might help keep people away, too, and may also change folks' drinking habits, by switching from relatively expensive mixed-drinks to less-expensive beer and wine.

But that may not be the case.

Paul Stuart wrote, "The beer drivers tell me all I need to know.  Some bars locally that used to sell 30 cases of Miller Lite per week now sell five."

[Note: We could invite a few neighbors over and polish-off five cases in a weekend of college and NFL football--but smoking is permitted in the garage.]


Here are numbers from a quazi-random sampling of Ferndale favorites, comparing 2010's January - November sales to 11/12ths of 2009's.
Elks Club
Boogie Fever
Luxury Lanes
Magic Bag
Club Bart
As far as liquor sales are concerned, some venues actually saw sales increase, among them were New Way and Comos at 6.7% and 7.24%, but the big winner was Howe's Bayou at 17.53%.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The day after Snyder's state-of-the-state

Rick Snyder, Michigan's freshly-minted new governor, gave his first state-of-the-date address last night.  Other pundits and politicos have picked the obvious parts.  Here's a few of ones you may hear or read less about, but may have a big impact on residents.

[You can read the entire transcript at the Detroit Free Press]

"I will present a summary of this dashboard in every State of the State address I give. It is composed of 21 different measures in five key areas. The dashboard’s designed to give you information at a glance."

Many corporations' have been using dashboards for years.  As soon as they logon to their computers, or visit their company's internal website, they're presented with charts and graphs that show how well the company in terms of customer service, production, revenue, accounts payable, daily sales outstanding, sales, and other indicators of a company's health and trends.

If true to his word, all interested Michigan residents should be anxious to see how the needles have moved at next year's state-of-the-state address.  Rather than hiding behind spin and rhetoric like so many other politicians have, Snyder is proposing to hang it all out in the open.

This is a good thing.

" mid-February, we will present a budget to the Legislature. This is one month ahead of the required deadline. We will present a two-year budget. Our budget will include the elimination of the job-killing Michigan business tax and replace that with a 6%...  I will ask that we strive to complete the budget process by May 31."

My father always told me to do my homework and do it early.

Chapter IX, Section 8 of Ferndale's Charter stipulates our budget must be presented by the first regular council meeting in April.  The good news is that'll be approximate six weeks after the governor will present his version of the budget, so council and the city manager will have time to incorporate any drastic changes to state revenue sharing the city may receive.  The bad news is the budget must be finalized approximately six weeks before the state legislature will approve it.

Unfortunately, our state legislature hasn't a good track-record for finishing budgets on-time.  In recent years, the legislature is still burning the midnight oil around Halloween.  Last minute changes to revenue sharing and school funding have perturbed those budgets shortly after the school year has just started.

Even better news is the budget will be a two-year budget similar to how Oakland County does theirs.  And Deputy Executive Richard Daddow said in a meeting before Ferndale's Financial Planning Committee that the county hopes to go to three-year budgets.  It is partially for this reason that the county is better able to manage its finances and maintain a AAA bond rating.

Let's hope Michigan fairs as well.

"Government reform needs to happen at all levels from townships to cities, from counties to the state, to school districts as well. We need to positively encourage our local jurisdictions, both municipal and school, to move to service consolidation and better deliver value for money. To encourage not only service sharing, but best management practices, we’ll ask that revenue sharing be redone with a significant positive incentive for jurisdictions that adopt best practice."

This is a really big paragraph and it deserves some analysis.

Prima facia, the governor is suggesting that cities and schools should consolidate their services. I can think of no other region in the state as ripe for consolidated services as our little corner of SE Oakland County.

As I wrote about last February, the nine cities and one township that make up this little corner of Oakland County could combine into a single city the size of Livonia, save approximately $9 million dollars in redundant payrolls, and have a population of 192,000.

I'm as fond of my city as the residents of other small cities are of theirs.  The question all 192,000 of us must ask is is our parochiality worth the increased taxes required to deliver services inefficiently?  Are ten city clerks necessary?  Are ten libraries necessary?  Ten managers?  Ten (ok, nine) police departments with chiefs, captains, and the rest?  How about ten city attorneys?

If you were the governor of the state of Michigan, or anyone living outside one of these ten municipalities, would you think each of them was spending their share of state revenue as wisely as a larger city may be?  Does Livonia need nine jails?  Does Troy?  True, their populations are smaller (67,000 and 81,000 respectively) than the new consolidated region, but even extrapolated for population we'd need only a little over twice what those two cities combined would need (four libraries, four jails, and slightly more community centers).

The same would go for our schools.  Instead of two partially-filled high schools unable to afford full-time teachers for slower and faster-learning students or other elective courses, there'd be one high school better-able to afford state-of-the-art equipment and the teachers that know how to use it and fewer administrators eating-up educational dollars before they even reach the classroom.

Now, we don't know what definition Mr. Snyder is using for "best practice," but we can be fairly confident it would not be to break-up any larger city into smaller pieces, or to burden any larger school district into multiple districts--each with their own school boards, administrations, administration buildings, and all the costs and higher property taxes attendant to each.

As wonderful and well managed as Ferndale may be, we wouldn't be the model for other cities.  We may be managed and funded as best we can, and should be proud of that, but are we too proud?

The governor didn't say what carrot he'd use to encourage service consolidation (which isn't the same municipal consolidation), but it's easy to think of the sticks he and the legislature may use.

Not to encourage violence or anything, but let's "beat him to the punch" and get consolidating and regionalizing and sharing on our own terms with our neighboring cities before we're forced to on someone else's (or by an even more desperate property-tax situation).

"We will present a special message on education to the Legislature in April. It’s time to start talking about B-20 instead of just K-12.  We cannot leave children behind without the tools for success in their adult lives, but we also need to encourage better and faster opportunities for children that can go farther and faster in our system."

It's difficult to imagine what the costs would be of adding up-to seven additional years of publicly-financed or subsidized eduction for all Michigan students, or to guess precisely what the governor has planned for the first five years, except that pre-school would be involved--but starting at what age?

Certainly, providing additional years of publicly-funded education would be more easily affordable inside bigger districts with more children, but Ferndale is neither large nor bursting at the seams with children.  Perhaps this kind of funding would be one of the carrots the state might use to encourage consolidation of schools.

If schools don't consolidate, then it may be that those early-education programs simply aren't available in all districts.  If Ferndale isn't one of those districts, then it's a safe bet our student population will continue to fall, and it'll be increasingly harder to attract families (or retain them) to the city.

If our district continues to lose students, then our school board will have to resort to more creative ways to afford the programs for the students it does have.  Already, the district has "diversified" its revenue through adult education and University High, with mostly "trust us" consolations to residents and state regulators when its students' below-average test scores are questioned.

Particularly interesting is the last part of the governor's sentence, ".. we also need to encourage better and faster opportunities for children that can go farther and faster in our system."  If this means more advanced and challenging curricula or making college-credit classes conveniently located on high-school campuses, then I'm all for it.  Passing grades in tougher classes from more highly-regarded school systems can only translate into greater opportunities in college admissions, scholarships, internships, and careers than are available to our best and brightest.  A better educated workforce may keep current Michigan employers from having to look elsewhere, and may entice new employers to come here.

Certainly, it is better for our K-12 or B-20 programs to prepare students for college without the need for remedial classes (which increases the cost of college) than to not.  Better to be honest about our children's academic achievement than to artificially lower-the-bar to increase their self-esteem today at the risk of their futures.  Consequently, lowering-the-bar doesn't just make our kids feel better than they should, but it makes teachers and administrators look better than they should and gives parents a false peace-of-mind.

We should be as concerned about the quality of our education as we are our food supply.  We should pay as much or more attention to the high-school syllabus as we do the ingredient labels of SpaghettiOs.

We'll visit the governor's comments on economic gardening in another article.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Financial Planning Committee meets for last time

As indicated at the public hearing and reported today in the Ferndale Patch, the Financial Planning Committee appointed by council in September will meet for the last time tonight to finalize its January 10 presentation to city council.

One of the things that gets lost in the talk of tax increases is the $8 million in cuts they've proposed over the next five years. Not enough to balance the budget, but cuts have something a tax increase doesn't have--certainty.

The tax increase isn't a sure thing. If voters aren't convinced council will stop spending on discretionary expenses, work as diligently on consolidating services as they do remodeling, and advocate for regional cooperation as much as they do the DDA, I don't see why voters would approve giving them more money--even to fill a hole--to indulge their appetites.

Cost cuts, however, are a sure thing, or can be, and they don't have to wait for an election. Of course, many of the cuts and restrained spending the financial committee will recommend are items council is already aware of and had within their power to act on already.

So maybe even cuts are as uncertain as a tax increase.

Residents need also to be wary of anyone claiming the tax increase is necessary to preserve Ferndale's "quality of life."  Great food is important to my quality of life, but under financial pressure I must cut-back on steaks, pork tenderloins, and lamb chops for more "affordable" fare and eliminate expensive whiskey altogether.

Ferndale faces similar choices.  Does it keep the Kulick Center or not?  Does it keep its own police or not?  Does it operate its own jail or not?  Remember that even if all the preceding (and others) are or-not'ted the city will still have places for seniors to meet, police, and a place to hold suspects--it just may not own them.  Not everything will have a "City of Ferndale" logo on it.  The seniors will still be able to meet at a church but will have to forgo the exercise room; sheriff deputies may patrol our streets instead of our own police (though many may be hired as deputies),  and suspects may be locked-up in Madison Heights rather than downtown Ferndale.

Unfortunately, we won't be able to vote for more fiscal prudence until November, six months after we're asked to increase taxes by a city council that regards itself as "investors."  Investors in totem poles, parking studies, city hall rebuilding studies , surveys, and redecorating.