The Year In Local Politics

Posted In: Politics, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 717   By: Mike Thompson

23rd December, 2010     0

Additional Reporting by Robert Martin

Local elected officials receive criticism, sometimes with merit, but one point should be made - they aren’t allowed to settle problems by running up debt, as continually happens in Washington.

And then they are blamed, in many quarters, when property taxes are raised to make up for cuts in federal (and state) aid.

Saginaw city residents may not have liked it, but this year by a 2-1 margin they renewed a 6-mill tax for public safety and added 1.5 mill.

As stated, the City Council can’t be blamed for such major losses in tax revenue during the past decade or, in the bigger picture, the past 40 years. Much of the shortfall is obviously rooted in the auto industry’s decline. But back in the middle 1980s, Saginaw received $3 million annually in federal revenue that was devoted  – you guessed it – to the police and fire departments.

Back in 2007 an ICMA report recommended the Fire Department should use “it’s relatively large amount of non-committed staff time” to assist the Police Department, and here we are three years down the road with relatively little changed.

Revenue sharing was among Reagan Era spending and tax cuts. That’s how things often work out. Citizens perceive that their federal taxes are being reduced, but then they just end up paying the piper locally.

Approval of the public safety renewal and increase came amid the national tide of anti-tax sentiment. City Council reform members who came on board starting in 2005 may perceive that this represents general public approval of the job they’re doing, but a pair of issues should give them caution:

A lot of folks are questioning City Manager Darnell Earley’s need to hire a Public Safety Administrator, to whom Police Chief Gerald Cliff and Fire Chief Dean Holland would report. Earley says the new person could come up with cost-saving ideas and methods for the two departments to cooperate more often, and that Cliff and Holland don’t have time within their day-to-day duties to focus long term. Furthermore, names of candidates were kept private for the longest possible time.

Officials note that the cost of the new Public Safety Administrator will be made up from the replacement of two currently unfilled deputy chief posts, but they miss the larger issue that underscores a debate that has gone on for a decade about the need to truly merge public safety departments across the expanse of Saginaw County.

We currently have 17 police departments in Saginaw County and spend collectively around $33 million on law enforcement for personnel & equipment.

Wouldn’t it seem logical to consolidate into one metropolitan police department and thereby infuse more dollars cost effectively into putting more officers on the street? This is what was advanced with the original Saginaw Charter Commission, but overlooked in the onslaught of negative press that the Commission received.

The snag back then as it is today exists in dismantling the existing organizations and getting the unions to agree to form one large metropolitan unit.

(2) The city administration is looking bad in the “mystery” (as of this writing on Dec. 17) regarding the Fire Department ordering a closure of the catwalk, after 38 years, at TheDow Event Center. A full week after the story first broke, prominent officials such as Mayor Greg Branch and the County Controller still hadn’t seen a report and didn’t know the reasoning involved, and the city administration wasn’t talking. Saginaw Spirit owners Dick Garber and Craig Goslin are showing patience, but this whole scenario isn’t good for relations with the Event Center’s main tenant.

Lack of information on these issues occurs after city voters showed the good faith not only to renew and expand the public safety millage, but to help pass a countywide Event Center tax as well.

For the past five years, council members have prided themselves in refraining from the public bickering that took place during the era of Wilmer Jones Ham McZee and Roma Thurin and Daniel Soza.

But has the council gone too far in the opposite direction, at the cost of a free flow of information and ideas?

Council members can point to a number of positive developments under their watch. City finances are in order and auditing problems have been resolved. Earley is close to becoming the longest-serving manger since Ed Potthoff (1960-77) and Tom Dalton (1977-86). Removal and rehab of abandoned houses with an economic stimulus grant appears to be proceeding without a hitch.

Considering all of this, along with the public safety tax support, shouldn’t public relations be better?

Another Public Safety Tax?
It took a few more years, but the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners is at a budget crossroads similar to that faced by the City Council during the middle of the decades.

Members tapped reserve funds to avoid layoffs during the past year, but now the cupboard is bare and Democrats in the majority are aiming to seek a Sheriff’s Department levy during a May election. The amount, in the range of 1.5 mill, will be far lower than the city tax, but countywide voters can be tougher to sell than in the city alone.

 County board members, similar to the City Council, will need to consider public relations. Their pay and benefits, ranging from $13,527 to $38,176, provide a major source of Republican criticism that is sparking organized opposition to a public safety tax. Will the county board address these concerns prior to a May 4 vote?

Republicans have advanced a plan of reduction in County expenses that is noted below:

  1. Board of Commissioners benefits: $47,135.
  2. Eliminate all board and employee conference travel $147,060.
  3. Lay off a County Clerk staffer: $34,962.
  4. Lay off a Sheriff’s Department grant coordinator: $77,962.
  5. Eliminate an assistant prosecutor or two support staff: $99,224.
  6. Lay off a Board of Commissioners support staffer: $77,040.
  7. Freeze elected officials pay: $48,000.
  8. Eliminate longevity pay: $2,800.
  9. Stop driving county-owned vehicles home: $36,500.

This will be a top story as 2011 unfolds.

Impact of the Smoking Ban

Another top local story that stemmed from action by the State Government was the smoking ban, passed in December of last year, which went into effect in Michigan on May 1st.

Apart from the difficulties local businesses and individuals are facing with the rough economy, this latest wave of state mandated obstacles has resulted in the closure of several local establishments, along with a loss in Lottery Revenue estimated to be upward of $21 million dollars. Many local restaurants & taverns are reporting a reduction of anywhere from 25 to 40% in revenues as a result of the ban.

Irony and hypocrisy are plentiful. With revenues from tobacco taxes representing 5.1 percent of all Michigan taxes, obviously the State does not mind making money from smokers – only apparently they are well off enough now to shift the loss in 2011 by layering in additional taxes and fines.

Sources tell The Review that a move may be under way in Lansing to modify the smoking ban and possibly allow smoking in taverns that do not serve food.  Again, this will be a big story to watch in 2011.

Some Good News

Saginaw City Hall reaped $17.4 million from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act to tear down up to 800 abandoned homes during the next three years, and to renovate up to 800 more.

This marked a huge chunk of cheese, given that past city spending for these purposes has amounted to little more than $1 million per annum from the ever-shrinking federal Community Development Block Grant allotment.

Key zones being targeted for the funds include The Cathedral District surrounding St. Mary’s Hospital and the West Side’s Covenant HealthCare neighborhood.

Less Violence in Saginaw
It’s been reported that FBI crime statistics indicate the City of  Saginaw is the nation’s “most violent” small town. Not to be defensive, but there has been reason to be skeptical of these reports. Collection of this nationwide data can be highly erratic, and many communities withhold information in order to protect their reputations.

Let’s see what the FBI reports for 2010, because something amazing has happened in Saginaw.

Saginaw’s homicide count entering late December was six. An idealist would say that this is “six too many,” but consider that Saginaw had about 50 annual murders during the middle 1970s, and the yearly count was in the range of 20 before this year.

“Only” six. What happened?  With a population roughly double that of Saginaw, the City of Flint had recorded 64 homicides entering Christmas week.

People in law enforcement will note that Saginaw maintained police staffing while there were major cutbacks in Flint. Voters in Flint will face a proposed public safety tax that is similar to Saginaw’s.

But the Rev. Larry Camel, co-founder of Parishioners On Patrol, asserts that the number of police officers is simply one factor in Saginaw’s comparatively peaceful achievement.

“By no means does our organization take credit. We pray upon things, and we allow events to take their due course as God wills,” Camel says.

He takes note of community meetings that have drawn more than 250 upstanding citizens, and marches that have promoted civic awareness.

He points to food giveaways that have served more than 9,000 residents, with teenagers and young adults taking part in the distribution.

He emphasizes community self-help efforts, ranging from neighborhood cleanups to parenting workshops.

More than 30 Neighborhood Watch groups have been established, notes Camel, who is the pastor of New Life Missionary Baptist Church on the central East Side.

“It’s an overall movement in the community,” Camel says. “There is a sense of ownership.”

Hopefully, the success amid so much hardship will continue into 2011 in Saginaw.

And hopefully, the folks in Flint will start to find some answers.


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