By Charles Sercombe
The City Council met Dec. 14 with all councilmembers in attendance. The three-hour meeting was chaired by Mayor Karen Majewski.
Just to give some perspective, prior to writing this column, Insider was picking up dog poop in the backyard. We’re not sure what kind of segue this is — from picking up a bagful of poop to writing about Tuesday’s meeting — but we swear it is purely coincidental.
And certainly not metaphorical.
On the other hand, dear readers, would you rather hear about the Insider’s dog? She’s a Chesapeake Bay Retriever who sometimes answers to the name “Pearl,” and is one smart gal who likes to jump the fence and chase after stray cats.
We’re working on that (by building a taller fence).
OK … back to City Hall news. The council spent most of the meeting debating whether to begin an application process to get a state loan worth $3 million in order to keep the city afloat financially for another year-and-a-half.
The upshot: the council decided to hold off on submitting an application until the city manager provides more background financial information. More on that later.
To start off the meeting, the public was allowed to speak. Stepping up to the podium was perennial confabulator, and wearer of many former city hats, Robert Zwolak, who took umbrage over a proposal to cancel the Dec. 28 meeting. He said the council can’t afford to miss a meeting during the city’s current financial crisis.
He added that a number of councilmembers already take too much time off for vacations and conferences.
He also weighed in on a proposal to ask the state for a loan to cover the city’s upcoming payrolls and bills.
“You are not solving the problem, you’re prolonging the problem,” Zwolak said.
He also said that getting a state loan will only serve to allow “others to bide time to get out of here.”
(Editor’s note: Get out your Hamtramck decoder ring, kids. … Just who are these sinister sounding “others” and why are they “biding” their time to “get out of here”? Well, we’re going to take an educated guess that he is talking about cops and firefighters, mostly, and maybe some longtime city hall employees, and maybe even the city manager, who need just a little more time until they qualify to retire with a full pension. What “they” need during this time is for the city to remain financially solvent just long enough before the city goes bankrupt and ruins their pension deal. Because Bob really doesn’t want “them” to have a pension from the city, especially since he doesn’t have one.)
Zwolak’s comment about conferences and vacations stirred up an emotional response from Mayor Majewski, who has attended a few conferences this year. She said conferences are not vacations and constitute work. And as for taking a vacation, Majewski, with her voice cracking with emotion, said to Zwolak: “How dare you.” She said she has not seen her mother in a year despite being just five hours away in travel time.
(Editor’s note: Bob, getting a little red in the face were we? And to clear the matter, Mayor Majewski later told The Review she has no travel plans for the holidays.)
As it turned out, the council decided against canceling the Dec. 28 meeting.
Moving on, Councilmember Tom Jankowski questioned how to bring back an issue already voted on and approved. After a short discussion he was allowed to offer a resolution to rescind permission for a party store to open on Lumpkin St. in the southend.
Jankowski said he brought the issue back onto the table for the council to reconsider because the party store owner plans to sell beer and wine. Jankowski said he is opposed to that.
(Editor’s note: Hypocrisy alert! Jankowski later in the meeting objected to revisiting a motion by the council to cut the city manager’s secretary from a full-time position with benefits to part time with no benefits. He said the council should not get into the business of reversing prior decisions in these financially unstable times because “we need to steady the ship.” Aye-aye, Captain.)
Community & Economic Development Director Jason Friedmann cautioned that before the council goes much further with the issue, he said the only thing the council approved was for permission for the party store to open in an otherwise residential-only zoned area.
He said part of the deal was that the party store could not sell beer and wine – which he had to repeat several times — slowly. The would-be party store owner must get permission to sell beer and wine from the council or state.
Upon hearing that, and an earful from Councilmember Cathie Gordon questioning why the council is even discussing the issue since there was no issue of the store being able to sell beer or wine in the first place, Jankowski withdrew his motion.
Oh, we’re just getting warmed up.
Councilmember Gordon said she had a “simple” question, which turned out to be not so simple. She questioned whether the city has control over how the library spends its money.
City Manager Bill Cooper said the city doesn’t control the library’s budget, and that the Library Board has that power. However, in further discussion of the library’s budget, Cooper said the city has oversight on whether the library properly bids out contracts.
Gordon’s question dovetailed into a proposal to separate the library’s employee pension costs from the city’s costs. Library employees belong to the same union that City Hall employees belong to.
Finance Director Nevrus Nazarko said that by transferring pension cost responsibility to the library, the library will have a clearer understanding of its budget.
Councilmember Jankowski said it’s “amazing” that an unelected Library Board has sole power over the library budget.
Cooper added that the library is funded by its own special property tax.
Perhaps as a foreshadow of things to come, earlier in the meeting Councilmember Catrina Stackpoole cautioned that councilmembers need to treat city employees fairly and with civility during the city’s financial crisis. She said the council also needs to work as a team, and not single anyone out during conversations.
Speaking of city finances, Councilmember Gordon proposed adopting a “Cost Recovery” law that allows the city to charge DTE for the time firefighters spend guarding fallen electrical lines.
The proposed law would also allow the city to charge drivers for damages they cause to public property, such as a fire hydrant or street sign. And on top of the cost of replacing damaged goods, the city would also be able to charge back the hourly costs of police and firefighters who have to respond to accidents.
Many other cities already have a similar law in place.
Councilmember Kazi Miah said adopting the ordinance is a “no-brainer.”
Councilmember Stackpoole, with tongue only slightly in cheek, questioned whether the law could include costs of lost service from Comcast.
Said City Manager Cooper: “It’s called competition.”
File the following discussion under “I am woman, hear me roar.”
A heated discussion took place on whether to reinstate the city manager’s secretary back to full time with benefits. Councilmember Stackpoole said if the secretary – who is a woman – has to take benefit cuts then men should also be required to do the same thing.
(Editor’s note: Still have your decoder ring out? The strident defense of the secretary comes a week after the council reversed its decision to downgrade the Director of Public Works – a man (Marty Ladd) — from full-time to three-quarter-time – whatever that is.)
City Manager Cooper pointed out that the cut amounts to a savings of only $31,000. Councilmember Miah said that the council has to start somewhere to find savings and that each cut adds up.
Miah also added that if a full-time secretary is needed so badly, then Cooper should take a cut in salary.
A moment of uncomfortable silence followed that comment.
The council split 50-50 in the vote to bring back the secretary to full-time status, with Councilmembers Shahab Ahmed, Cathie Gordon and Catrina Stackpoole voting in favor.
That tie vote required Mayor Majewski to cast her vote, which she did by voting in favor of restoring the cut.
On the issue of applying for a state loan, the discussion went in several directions. Cooper said if the state did approve the loan for $3 million, the city would have 20 years to pay it back with a very low interest rate.
He said the loan will give him time to try to convince the city’s labor unions to agree to contract concessions, most notably by changing to a less expensive health insurance plan.
Cooper said if the council fails to take any action, the city would eventually run out of cash to meet payroll and pay bills.
He said if the state appoints an emergency financial manager to run the city, the first thing he or she would do is raise the property tax rate to its legal limit.
Councilmember Jankowski needled Cooper about what he said was a lack of financial information for the council to review and what exactly Cooper wants the city’s unions to give up.
The council agreed that information was crucial before going applying for a loan. Long story made short, Cooper said he would have that information for the Dec. 28 meeting and that the council will decide whether to move forward with the loan at its Jan. 11 meeting.
Oh, this meeting. … There was more, but we’ll save that for next week.
The meeting, however, reminded Insider of this chorus from the tune “Mad World,” which was part of the soundtrack from the movie, “Donny Darko.”
“And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad
These dreams in which I’m dying, Are the best I’ve ever had
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles it’s a very very….
Mad World, Mad World”
Written by Gary Jules