City Hall Insider

By Charles Sercombe

The City Council met on Feb. 7 with only Mayor Karen Majewski absent. (The mayor attended Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano’s State of Wayne County Address.) The meeting went past three hours.

Where — oh where — to begin with this meeting? To say that tempers were flying would be an understatement. But it started out sweet. Perhaps we should all go back to a time when things were simpler, and America was still an economic powerhouse.

Yes, let’s set our “Way Back” machine to 1959. That’s when Hamtramck’s Little League champs became World Champs. And in the center of this baseball powerhouse was one Art “Pinky” Deras – now considered the best Littler Leaguer in history.

Yes, in history, as in never to be matched again.

The council was treated to a short presentation by Brian Kruger of Stunt3 Multimedia, which produced a documentary on Deras, a pitcher, and his teammates of that 1959 historical season.

He was there to champion the renaming of Dan St. to the honorific title of “Art ‘Pinky’ Deras Way.”

The council voted unanimously in favor of that one. All that was missing was a rousing sing-a-long of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Hey, maybe later, after this report?

But before the vote, they were treated to a preview of the documentary. Here are some stats on Deras, who is now a retired Warren police officer:

In 1959 he went 18-0, had 10 no-hitters, struck out 298 batters, had a batting average of .640 and hit 33 home runs.

Gives you goose bumps just thinking about it. And for the record, his teammates were no slouches either. In fact, it could be argued that even without Deras the boys – bless em’ all — would have had a very good season.

Kruger said his doc is up for a Michigan Emmy and may soon see wider distribution. It was aired on the Fox and ABC television networks. He also added that his company is willing to pay for the signage.

And, Kruger said he is also interested in doing a documentary on the city’s baseball grandstands in Veterans Memorial Park, which appears to have been part of the legendary Negro League.

Batting up next were the city’s auditors from Alan C. Young & Associates, PC and Plante Moran.
Carl Johnson, a representative of Plante Moran, noted that following the Pinky Deras piece was a “hard one to follow.”

(Editor’s note: It’s known as batting ninth.)

The city’s financial picture for 2010 was not good, but Johnson pointed out, that at least the city knows what it’s facing. On the upside, he said, the city’s financial bookkeeping was good and followed state law.

Now the bad news. The city spent more than what it collected, forcing it to dip into its rainy day fund.

The reason for the downtick, he noted, which is also widely known by city officials, is the dispute with Detroit over what Hamtramck is owed from tax collections from the GM Poletown plant.

The upshot is, Hamtramck collected $1million less than it expected last year. Detroit is claiming Hamtramck has been overpaid $7 million over the last several years. Detroit has since stopped all payment to Hamtramck, but that stoppage happened in the fiscal year of 2010-2011.

On top of that, Hamtramck’s Water Department is spending more than it is taking in, again thanks to Detroit and its increase in rates.

There was a little good news. The city earned $160,000 by taking over income tax collection and processing for the City of Highland Park.

The city’s library has a $500,000 surplus, and collected $400,000 last year from its own special tax on property owners.

Under questioning from council, Johnson said the city will likely be broke by the end of March. City Councilmember Tom Jankowski said he hopes the city’s unions take note of this.

There was plenty more talk about the city’s financial future later in the meeting when the council revisited the proposal to apply for a state emergency loan.

During public comment, Mike Kapusniak complained that the Kowalski Sausage Co. did not clear its sidewalk of snow. He suggested the city ticket the company.

He also noted that the former Citizen newspaper building on Jos. Campau at Zinow is a public safety threat because its façade is falling apart. He said scaffolding has been erected in front of the building for about year but there have been no repairs.

“They must know somebody in City Hall,” he said.

Bill Meyer talked at length about the city’s financial situation. He stressed that the city’s traffic patrol program is too aggressive.

“I know people who won’t even drive through Hamtramck,” he said.

(Editor’s note: Ball four! It’s a walk.)

Robert Zwolak asked what the status is of the lawsuit filed against the city for the massive number of basement floodings that took place a few years ago. He also questioned why the city continues to have its own water department. He said it appears the department is kept afloat just to maintain a “lucrative” contract for C.P.I., a contractor the city uses for all major road and water line repairs.

(Editor’s note: Signing bonus?)

OK, we’re going to continue with the baseball metaphor and say the meeting so far has just gotten past the first inning. The innings to follow featured wild pitches, grand slams and plenty of fouls.

In a review of city expenses, Councilmember Jankowski sharply questioned the amount of overtime worked by firefighters. He said 260 hours of overtime were racked up.

(Editor’s note: Batting average of .260 isn’t too shabby.)

Financial Director Nevrus Nazarko, who sat in for City Manager Bill Cooper, said most of the overtime was the result of meeting minimum staffing requirements.

Jankowski said it seemed to him there was “manipulation” of overtime by employees and some “tricks” used to claim it.

(Editor’s note: It’s called a pitch out.)

He said he wants to know what the “policy” is for overtime, and wants to make sure OT is distributed evenly among employees – and not limited to those who earn the most money.

(Editor’s note: It’s known as a “hit and run.”)

A few weeks ago, a majority of the council agreed to slash the budget in an effort to balance it. Those cuts included eliminating the city’s code inspectors.

(Editor’s note: Known as sacrifice flies.)

But included in those cuts was a proposal to have the city’s Community & Economic Development Department take over funding inspectors by tapping into federal funds that had been earmarked for other uses.

The council talked at length about whether to budget almost $55,000 for inspectors. Councilmember Jankowski questioned why there was a need, within the proposed budget, to purchase three laptops, three cameras and two-way radios.

He was told the laptops and cameras the inspectors had used previously were no longer working. As for the radios, there was a possibility to use surplus police equipment to avoid spending money.

The issue of equipment prompted Jankowski to ask whether there is an inventory of all city equipment.

What followed next was about an hour’s discussion, sometimes heated, about whether to apply for an emergency state loan. Mayoral Pro Tem Catrina Stackpoole (bats, throws right), who was standing in for the mayor, asked Finance Director Nevrus Nazarko (bats, throws right), who was standing in for City Manager Bill Cooper (bats, throws right), who was out sick, to speak on the “importance” of taking a state loan.

Nazarko outlined that there are two options for the city to consider: a loan that would have to be paid back in 12 months at an interest rate of about 5 percent, and a state loan with less than 1 percent in interest that could be paid back over 20 years.

He said the loan is needed to avoid payless paydays. In the meantime, Nazarko said he is confident that Hamtramck will prevail in a dispute with Detroit over how much tax revenue Hamtramck should receive from the GM Poletown plant.

The 20-year state loan would be for $2.6 million, and could be paid back at any time. Nazarko said the yearly interest rate for that loan would be just over $5,000 a year, while the 12-month loan would cost $125,000 in interest.

Nazarko repeated several times that the 20-year loan could be paid back at any time, and that he was confident that Hamtramck will win the Detroit dispute and could likely pay back the loan within two years.
Nazarko also said that the city will not have any money on hand to pay city employees or contractors by the end of March. He said the loan will allow the city to continue operations through 2012.

Councilmember Mohammed Hassan said he wants to see a budget that reflects cuts of $3 million – the amount that is being projected as the city deficit by the end of the fiscal year, which is June 30.

He said there are only two departments in the city that can help reduce the projected deficit: the police and fire departments. He said since both departments don’t trust the city’s budget deficit projection, the city should just run out of money.

(Editor’s note: “Let it die.”?)

Councilmember Stackpoole said that without the loan, the city will be taken over by the state. And if that happens, she said, “We won’t have a say.”

Councilmember Cathie Gordon said the city should first concentrate on collecting revenue.

“We don’t even know how much is out there,” she said.

Councilmember Kazi Miah said that he is concerned that if the loan is taken, the city will continue “business as usual.” He said that if the city’s website was up and running, it could make money.

He also said the council should fire the city manager. He accused Cooper of “goofing up” the contract for the firefighters, which he said came during the last council election season.

“Nobody wants to talk about that,” Miah said.

(Editor’s note: Well, let’s talk about that. Miah made the accusation of Cooper “goofing up” the firefighters’ contract several times later in the meeting.)

Councilmember Gordon said if the city is going to be short of money, it should borrow from the Water Department, where she said there is “tons of money.”

(Editor’s note: That would be the New York Yankees.)

Nazarko said it would be illegal to borrow from the Water Department, and besides that there is no money there.

Councilmember Jankowski questioned what would happen if the city received the state loan. Would department heads then demand back the 5 percent pay cut they took?

Jankowski said talk of going broke and having a state-appointed emergency financial manager take over is a “fear factor” tactic. He suggested the city wait until it goes broke and then see what the state recommends, whether it would be taken over by an emergency financial manager or taking a loan.

Nazarko countered back: “Why wait for the next step?”

Councilmember Shahab Ahmed said the council should listen to Nazarko because Nazarko is presenting a good argument for the loan.

Councilmember Miah sharply questioned Ahmed, asking if he thinks there is nothing else to cut from the budget and whether the city manager “goofed off” handling the firefighters’ contract.

Ahmed said the budget had been cut as much as it can and that he did not know what Miah meant about the firefighters’ contract.

Miah: “You should, you’ve been here six years.”

The upshot of the discussion was that the council agreed to continue it in a special meeting on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

Moving on to the 8th inning, no runners on, first up to bat, Councilmember Gordon swings for the long ball. She accused City Clerk Ed Norris of whiffing it when it comes to bearing down on businesses filing for their annual business permit. She said 20 percent of the businesses in the city have failed to file for a business permit.

Asked by Norris how she arrived at that figure. She replied: “That’s what I’ve been told. By people in this building.”

During the discussion, Financial Director Nazarko pointed out that business permit revenue went up from $22,000 a year ago to $35,000 this year.

(Fastball, straight over the plate.)

During the public comment section at the end of the meeting, apparently nerves were frayed, the game became too close to call. Bill Meyer, standing up at the lectern, wound up, and delivered a curveball. He accused Councilmember Stackpoole of politicking by bringing up the state loan proposal.

Stackpoole, who was chairing the meeting, swung and … get ready readers … wait … said: “What the F— are you talking about? I’ve had it with you people.”

(We’re not sure if she spat at the umpire at this point and turned her hat backwards and then kicked dirt all over home plate.)

Stackpoole then left the meeting (ejected?) but came back a few minutes later and apologized.

(Watch out for those inside pitches.)

All right, let’s shake off the dust from this meeting, and in the spirit of good sportsmanship, let’s all stand up, stretch, shake hands … and sing out a neighborly version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

“Take me out to the ball game
Take me out with the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack
I don’t care if I never get back
For it’s root, root, root for the home team
If they don’t win it’s a shame
For it’s one, two, three strikes
You’re out at the old ball game!”

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