Community cleanup: With Pensions & Public Safety Eating Up the Budget, What are the answers?

Posted In: Politics, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 639   By: Mike Thompson

14th June, 2007     0

This is the early spring of 1977. The members of Northeast Saginaw Neighbors, a community group, have decided that they want to do a cleanup. I am their organizer and am sort of skeptical, because these are mostly senior citizens and mostly women.

The big day arrives and we gather at an abandoned storefront near the corner of Sixth and Farwell. The outlook seems anything but bright. Drizzle is falling and if the temperature were a just a few degrees lower, this would be sleet or snow instead of rain.

Still, the neighbors are ready on this Saturday morning in late April, about 20 of them. "Let's get going!" proclaims Ardella Carter, the chairwoman. They fan out across the property. Some are carrying garbage bags to pick up all of the paper, bottles and cans.

Others are gathering broken tree branches. Others are swinging weed whips to chop the growth along the fences.

This seems to be such a dismal, futile day. Then, all of a sudden, Winnie Clark calls out in her sing-song voice. She is so spry, like she's age 75 going on 25. "I found money," she declares. Sure enough, along the side of the old store she has discovered about three dollars in coins, washed clean by the snow of at least one winter passed. Everyone laughs. The enthusiasm picks up and there is chitchat amid the work. Soon the curbside is lined with garbage bags and brush piles, and we head for another neighborhood location.

Moses Patterson is among those in the group. He lives on Fifth near Farwell, and his back yard borders the store site. Years ago, he had lost one of his hands while working in a manufacturing plant near Evanston, Illinois. I never have pressed him for details of how this happened, because this is not the sort of thing about which a person asks questions. But he is out there with the group, picking up papers and whipping weeds with his one good hand.

Later that afternoon, I pass by the lot and Frank Castillo is back out there. This time he has a chain saw so that he can get the heavier brush. "This is MY neighborhood," he explains, giving his saw a short rest. If we don't do this, who will?
*
Now we are back to the present time. Abandoned lots across the city have grown waist high, even eye high, with tall grass and weeds. Our parks are overgrown. Even Hoyt Park is becoming abandoned. Even our boulevards look nasty, Court Street on the West Side and Veterans Parkway on the East Side. Every year at this time there exists a ritual in Saginaw, in which the citizens and the City Council members ask how we have reached a point in which these depressing conditions exist. The answer is always that city government lacks resources to do a whole lot of cleanup.

Jeff Klopcic is the city's Geographic Information Services administrator and Dan Sherman is the GIS analyst. In essense, they serve as City Hall's link to the computer age.

For abandoned properties, with the help of an ordinance passed in 2004, they have used the technology to make city crews more efficient. Notices of code enforcement violations are posted on the city web site, www.saginaw-mi.com.  This allows crews to work in target neighborhoods, one by one, rather than wasting time and gasoline jumping from one distant site to another.

Two crews are assigned to the task, usually on an empty lot but sometimes mowing around an abandoned house that stands in the middle. Each crew includes two city workers and a third assigned on parole from TRI-CAP, the Tri-County Community Adjudication Program.

The list of abandoned parcels grows each year and now exceeds 1,400. Crews last year performed 2,131 tasks. This means that some parcels were mowed twice last summer, some only once.

A typical result, which we all see, is that the dead grass and weeds turn into a tan color, like hay.

City Hall sends out payment notices at a rate of more than $150 to try to cover the expenses of the workers and the equipment, which breaks down frequently. Staffers say they have a hard time collecting, similar to when they demolish one of the abandoned houses that now are more than 600 in number.

 Staffer Jeremy Grzenia has the difficult job of taking calls from unhappy neighbors. They tell him that the lots are so overgrown that rats and even opossums have taken residence, or that gang members are hiding guns in the thickets. All Grzenia can do is inform them that the parcel is on the cutting schedule and that sooner or later ("probably later") a crew will come by. Crews will need until the end of July to complete the first round of cuts that started in May. In August and September the crews will return to some of the properties, but not all of them, for a second visit.

 

Another three crews are assigned to mow Saginaw's 338 acres of parks and boulevards, along with the hidden task of cleanup beneath the bridges. Klopcic and Sherman say the goal is to cut every two weeks, but that the workers often fall behind. This is why, at certain times when you walk through Bliss Park or Hoyt Park, you can't see your own ankles.

An exception is the Veterans Memorial Plaza in front of the Hoyt Park Fieldhouse, which looks like the fairway of a golf course. The leading organizer of the plaza, former City Councilman Tom Webb, is a retired schoolteacher who mows the area himself.

City Hall spends more than $200,000 per year for this minimal upkeep of the vacant lots, the parks and the boulevards. This comes from a general fund of $33 million, two thirds of which goes for the police and fire departments.

There are dozens of Tom Webbs out there who mow the lots next to their houses, or else things would look even worse. If City Council members wanted to spend more money to employ more crews, they would have to make a matching cut in public safety or some other area of the budget.


In the early summer of 1997, I organized a summer youth lunch and recreation site in Northeast Saginaw near the Potter Street Railroad Station at the old Christ Community Church, which generously donated the use of its property.

A van from the federally funded Summer Food Program each weekday delivers the sandwiches, the fruit and the milk cartons. City Hall at the time still has funds to pay for the kitchen staff and the drivers, but a few years down the road this will be cut from the budget, and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan will take over.
Some of the children arrive hungry but on the other hand, once in a while a few kids will show up carrying bags from the nearby McDonald's. . This is the nature of hardship and poverty across America in hard-pressed towns such as Saginaw.

The Saginaw Community Foundation has given us a $1,500 grant, which we have spent for everything from portable basketball rims to packs of Uno card games. The meals are only a small part of the program. It's lunch and more.

Friends, co-workers and church members are helping me to supervise. Even some of the kids want to pitch in. One of them is Draymond Green; 7 years old but standing in front of me like a grown young man.
"Can I help serve the lunches?" he asks. Draymond today is 17 and 6-foot-8, now truly a grown young man, an all-stater for Saginaw High's championship basketball team and an honor student who serves as a credit to his community.

Neighbors are getting involved. Roberta Scott is working a night shift at the Malleable Iron Plant, but late each morning she wakes up and rubs her eyes and walks down the street to help. She brings her young son and daughter, who run in front along the sidewalk and jump into the air with the latest kung fu moves they have seen on television.

The church is maintained nice and neat, with a clean side yard at the corner of Warren and Carlisle. But to get there, Roberta and her kids have to walk past all sorts of blight, past some of those lots that Jeff Klopcic and Dan Sherman now have registered on their computers. An abandoned house looks haunted, doors and windows open to entry, the tall grass and weeds sprouting three feet high. Across the street, in a huge vacant area where probably a half-dozen homes once stood, there is a sign that declares, 'Future Site of Project Hope.'  Whatever Project Hope was supposed to be, it never has come to fruition. Roberta is speaking to me one day, mapping plans for activities for the children. On one day we will give each of the kids a fresh new storybook to take home. On another some musicians will stop by and demonstrate their instruments. And on another we will take the kids to the Detroit Lions' training camp out at SVSU and allow them to escape this sordid environment, at least for a few hours.

"We're trying to focus on the community," Roberta tells me. Then she pauses and looks across the street, at the overgrown chunk of abandoned land with the Project Hope sign in the middle.

She continues her thought:  "But I don't have a community anymore."
*
Back to the present time, just last week. I'm speaking with Marv Hare, the Saginaw County treasurer, who is undertaking an added duty during the past two years. He also is chairman of the Saginaw County Land Bank Authority, which means that he works with his staff and a governing board to try to take control of abandoned properties.

Instead, the county can take control and assemble land for developers, or for do-good projects such as Habitat for Humanity. And if a next-door homeowner wants an adjacent lot, this now can be arranged through the land bank and the homeowner won't have to bid at auction against the speculators.

Marv Hare's model is the state's first land bank in Genesee County, supported with big money from the Mott Foundation. Genesee's land bank has foreclosed on nearly 4,000 vacant lots and more than 1,000 abandoned houses since 2002, selling some of them for profit to continue operations.

Saginaw lacks a benefactor such as C.S. Mott, but the Stoker Foundation through Citizens Bank donated $100,000 in startup funds. In addition, Hare's office collected more than $380,000 through last year's initial land auction under county control. This is nowhere near enough money to take control of all of the abandoned properties, but the land bank has started by acquiring 62 of them, many in the city's target area surrounding St. Mary's Hospital.

Will the effort make a difference? Hare is willing to try, but he wonders.

"It's getting worse than ever," he says. "Last year we had 404 properties for auction. This year we have 562 foreclosures, including 85 with abandoned houses on the property. We will try to get some of them for the land bank before the auction, but we can't get all of them. We are so overloaded with these properties, we may have to concentrate on just the ones along the main streets."

For his daily route to return home from the courthouse, he travels Mackinaw and then Woodbridge. He sees nearly 10 abandoned homes along the way, and this is on the West Side. On the Northeast Side, where he grew up, in some locations there are 10 vacant houses within a span of two blocks.

"Around Twelfth Street, it's like a war zone," he says. "We're really hurting here in Saginaw. We need to do something."

He notes that some of the abandoned lots have grown into small forests. In addition to mowing, the land bank will have to remove trees.

 Hare wishes to focus on the inner city, but he also wants to show impact in other areas. One of the land bank's first projects was to purchase and demolish an abandoned West Side home, on North Granger near Holland Avenue, for about $5,000. A neighboring homeowner purchased the lot for half the cost. Similar 'side lot' sales are planned not only near St. Mary's, but also in Saginaw Township and Thomas Township, and also in Hemlock and Bridgeport.

One of the abandoned target homes is on Lessur Street, behind the St. Stephen's football field.

"Tom Miller (the land bank director) was out there with me, and somebody called the cops on us because they thought we were vagrants," Hare says with a laugh.

"The blight has now spread to all areas of the city. Hopefully, in neighborhoods like the St. Stephen's area, we can help to stop the blight before it starts. At the same time, we can't forget our inner city."
*
All we can do is keep on trying, and keep on volunteering when opportunities arise. My wife, Denise, calls our little putt putt mower  'the community machine' because three neighbors in need borrow it over here on North Fayette Street. And we now have a vacant lot across the street, the result of a house fire.

Saginaw didn't have a full-fledged community cleanup this spring, but several groups did some work and Councilwoman Amanda Kitterman Miller is coordinating a new citizens’ group.

She can be reached through the city manager's office, 759-1400.

Meanwhile, Marv Hare will take questions on the land bank at 790-5225.

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