City Hall Insider …

What is our City Council up to these days? We have the scoop and the highlights – as well as the lowlights – of the latest council meeting.

By Charles Sercombe

The City Council met on May 10, and all councilmembers were present. The meeting ran for a little over one-and-a-half hours.

Taxes. It’s universal. No one likes them. You can add to that list an increase in the water and sewer rates. Put it all together, and you’ve got a packed council meeting and a guaranteed lengthy debate.

Perennial Candidate Robert Zwolak led the charge against a proposed property tax rate that the council would later discuss.

And perennial candidate Abdul Algazali also took issue with the proposed increase of 2.2 property mills that is included in the new city budget that will kick in July 1.

Algazali said many people are unemployed and are having a hard time making ends meet. He said instead of raising taxes, the council should cut expenses.

“If we want the city to survive we have to make cuts,” Algazali said.

He also said the police and fire unions must pitch in and make contract concessions.

There was a whole lot more discussed about the proposal later in the meeting. But before the council got to that topic, a lengthy talk was held on how to proceed with a review of the city manager’s job performance.

Councilmember Tom Jankowski, who has been spearheading the effort, suggested the council meet and talk about each member’s review and come up with goals for the city manager.

Mayor Karen Majewski noted that in the past she has had a hard time getting councilmembers to participate in the review.

Councilmember Cathie Gordon asked City Manager Bill Cooper if there was anything in the review form he finds objectionable. Cooper said he had reviewed the form but would like to look at it once more.

Other than that, he said, he had no objections.

Councilmember Jankowski smirked, sort of, saying Cooper had the form for about month and questioned the need for him to take another day or two to review it.

Cooper shot back: “I’ve been kind of busy with a few other things.”

Long story made short: the council agreed to meet in closed session after the May 24 council meeting to discuss Cooper’s review.

(Editor’s note: By law, Cooper can — and did — demand that his review be held in closed session.)

OK, on to the main bout in the evening’s meeting. The council was presented with a resolution that was actually the first step in a two-step process in adopting not only the 2012 budget, but also the water and sewer rates as well as the property tax rate.

There was plenty to chew on, but as some pointed out, no fat.

First up was Councilmember Gordon, who asked what budget was being considered. Cooper said it’s a version of the 2012 budget that he submitted to the council the previous night, but did not include the changes the council asked for. He said by the next council meeting, when the second reading takes places, the revised budget will be in place.

Gordon, repeating a theme from the previous night’s budget session, called the proposed budget “unrealistic.”

(Editor’s note: Some context is needed here. The budget relies on significant contract concessions from the police and fire unions, which so far seems as unlikely as the return of 5 cent draft beer.)

Gordon also asked if the proposal before the council also includes the property tax increase of 2.2 mills. Yep, it did.

Gordon said the tax matter should be voted on separately.

(Editor’s note: Also just for the record, this tax increase does not need the approval of voters. The tax raises the city’s tax rate to its legal limit. Anything higher would then require voter approval.)

Gordon went on to say that “I don’t have a problem with the 2.3 mills.”

So, you’re probably wondering what did Gordon have a problem with?

Well, she objected to the proposed water and sewer rate increase. Water was slated to go up 7 percent and sewer service was proposed to go up 4 percent. City Manager Cooper explained the increases were simply being passed on from the increases imposed by Detroit.

(Editor’s note: Sorry for the interruptions, but it should be pointed out that Hamtramck gets its water and sewer service from Detroit. Detroit supplies about 100 communities with this service. There is probably not one community that hasn’t complained about Detroit’s service and its rates and its behind-the-scenes goings on and that Kwame guy.)

Back to Councilmember Gordon, who pointed out that recently (three years ago it turns out) 11 mills were dropped from the city’s property taxes.

(Editor’s note: It involved a lawsuit with the city’s pensioners, a fierce and mighty litigious tribe that has successfully sued the city several times for this and that and ended up jacking up property taxes to pay for their hefty awards. Man, the city should have hired their lawyers. Just kidding. Please don’t sue us.)

Where were we? Oh yeah, point being, said Gordon, now’s the time to raise the tax rate because the city’s overall tax rate is the lowest it’s been … in 15 years (according to Finance Director Nevrus Nazarko).

Nazarko explained that compared to other communities, Hamtramck’s property tax rate is about even at 45 mills. Detroit’s rate, he said, is in the 60s.

Also, Nazarko pointed out that with property values decreasing in the last few years the city’s total taxable value fell by $50 million, which translated into a loss of $800,000 a year.

The proposed 2.2 mils will generate $425,000 a year for the city. What does this increase mean – wallet-wise – to the average homeowner? About an extra $50 to $55 a year, Nazarko said.

Or as Councilmember Shahab Ahmed rationalized: 13 cents a day.

Another factoid offered by Nazarko: A number of area communities have recently raised their tax rates to offset budget deficits. (Ferndale voters narrowly approved a 5 mill tax increase.)

(Attention younger readers: This discussion about taxes will one day mean something to you.)

Not everyone was cozy with the tax increase. Councilmember Mohammed Hassan said the city should first balance the budget with contract concessions from union employees and then revisit a tax increase if needed.

Councilmember Gordon circled back to the increase in water and sewer rates, saying the city should instead cut the Water Department budget by 11 percent.

“We have outrageous water bills,” Gordon said.

City Manager Cooper didn’t disagree with Gordon: “I agree.”

(Editor’s note: Is this a moment of peace in our time?)

Mayor Karen Majewski entered into the fray, saying the water and sewer rate increase is in response to what Detroit imposed on the city. She said the city can’t afford to “subsidize” the water bills for residents.

Plus, she said, the city needs to spend money on repairing a frail and aging water system.

Councilmember Kazi Miah was also opposed to the property tax increase, saying the council should hold off until contract concessions are made and then decide whether the tax is needed.

(Editor’s note: The return of 5 cent draft beer can’t be far behind.)

Mayor Majewski pointedly pointed out that had Councilmember Miah been at the previous night’s budget work session, he would know that the tax is needed to balance the city’s budget for the next two years and that it’s the budget year of 2013 that will be “debilitating.”

Miah responded that if the city raises taxes, residents will move.

Majewski said, basically, move where? She pointed out, once again, that the tax rate of area communities is similar to Hamtramck’s.

“So where are you going to go?” Majewski said.

Miah said other communities have “incentives” to lure people away and then said something about “redlining” and then begged off discussing the matter further.

(Editor’s note: We’ll say it if Councilmember Miah is too reluctant: Hamtramck residents are charged triple the amount for car insurance compared to suburban residents – no matter how clean their driving record is. For years, insurance companies have denied they “redline” cities like Hamtramck. Yeah, but facts are facts and suburban residents indeed pay far less for auto insurance. Call it what you want.)

Councilmember Catrina Stackpoole said that if the council refuses to pass the tax, the city will go broke and an emergency financial manager will come in and impose the tax anyway.

Councilmember Jankowski said that if you divide the projected deficit by the number of city employees, the employees would have to give up $51,000 each to erase the deficit.

Jankowski said the council has so far refused to raise property taxes. He said someone (he couldn’t remember who) once said: “The hardest thing about doing nothing is deciding when to stop doing nothing.”

Councilmember Hassan said that no matter what, by 2013 the city will be broke and taken over by the state. He also said that the recent announcement by GM that it is hiring 2,000 employees at the Poletown plant could mean a windfall of taxes for the city.

We’re going to flash forward a little bit to the vote taken on the whole mess, including the tax increase. The matter passed with Councilmembers Hassan and Miah voting against it.

Modern technology is catching up to the city’s Police Department. The council approved the purchase of “e-ticket” printers for patrol cars, which will allow officers to upload ticket information to the Hamtramck 31st District Court.

City Manager Cooper said this will cut down on work for court employees. Police Chief Mark Kalinowski said it will also free up officers to issue more traffic tickets.

Which begged the question, from Councilmember Gordon, whether the city’s traffic patrol program will resume.

Yes, said City Manager Cooper, in about two or three weeks.

Anyone notice that the streetlights on Holbrook, between Conant and Jos. Campau, have been out for some time? Councilmember Gordon said she’s received a number of calls about this issue.

“It’s been months,” Gordon said. “It’s bad.”

City Manager Cooper said that DTE Energy is working on the issue.

Councilmember Jankowski suggested that the city introduce the city’s new code inspectors to the community.

City Manager Cooper said the inspectors will be presented at the council’s May 24 meeting.

That’s it for this week. Next week, we will continue with a new discussion.

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