By Charles Sercombe
Hamtramck’s reliance on traffic ticket fines is nothing new.
And the fallout from it is a case of “déjà-vu all over again” (sorry Yogi Berra).
Oh, where to begin …
It goes back to the 1980s when city officials were struggling to make ends meet and avoid a budget shortfall.
The mayor at that time was Robert Kozaren, who in a small irony never drove a car. Kozaren came up with a plan to allow police officers to work overtime to enforce traffic laws.
Sound familiar so far?
Some called it a stroke of brilliance. Others called a deal with the devil.
The city indeed collected a lot of money from unsuspecting drivers. Cops would stake out areas along the I-75 service drive and at the bottom of downward sloping viaducts — areas where drivers would speed without even thinking about it.
Thousands and thousands of drivers were pulled over and ticketed. The city reaped in over $1 million a year.
Police officers working the program on a regular basis racked up huge amounts of overtime. Some of them earned their basic salary and more. And all the overtime earnings were applied to how much officers would receive in retirement.
Some cops who worked long hours on the program are now enjoying pensions of $80,000-plus a year.
So, a deal with the devil?
It gets worse – or better depending on your point of view.
Retired officers decided to file a lawsuit against the city over the earnings of the program. Basically, it boiled down to “me too.”
“Me too” as in the sense that if overtime earnings from the program were calculated into pension payments of working officers, then the retirees ought to get a piece of that pie. In a nutshell, their argument was that traffic patrol is a basic police function, and thus, any extra earnings from that program ought to be calculated into retirees’ pensions.
Long story made short, the retirees won. And to pay for the $8 million judgment the retirees won, a judge placed a special tax on property owners because the city certainly didn’t have that kind of money.
The program had another ripple effect.
For years during the program, former Hamtramck 31st District Court Judge Walter Paruk vigorously argued for extra staff because of the volume of tickets that had to be handled by his employees.
His pleas were silently tolerated, but essentially ignored by city officials.
Things didn’t change until Paruk’s son, Paul Paruk, followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected as the city’s one and only judge.
Paul Paruk took up his father’s plea for extra staffing and eventually won over city officials to allow for a second district court judge and additional staffing.
All went well until a new mayor came along, Gary Zych, who fell into a wide-range of differences with just about everyone in City Hall and halted the traffic patrol program.
And then a state-appointed emergency financial manager took over, and he also discontinued the traffic patrol program.
The second district court judge resigned, leaving just Paruk, but this time with no deluge of traffic tickets for his staff to deal with.
Now, flash forward to last year, and the city is desperate – once again – for additional revenue.
City Manager Bill Cooper was about to lay off police officers when the police officers’ union made an offer. The union promised to deliver at least $60,000 a month in ticket revenue in exchange for no layoffs.
Well, that deal helped both police officers and the city.
But once again, the 31st District Court found itself being the odd man out.
Oh, one more thing.
The city’s relentless ticketing of drivers back in the 1980s earned Hamtramck the dubious distinction from the insurance company AAA of being one big speed trap.
Flash forward, once again, to 2010, and Hamtramck is again being called a speed trap by a national drivers organization.